"In the field we are always trying to detect autism at younger ages, so we can start treatment earlier, but we hit a wall around 2 to 3 years of age, because the symptoms don't start showing up until around then", said the study's senior author, Joseph Piven, a professor of psychiatry, psychology and pediatrics at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, in an interview with CNBC. It appears that, for reasons scientists don't yet understand, this early growth in the front of the brain is the beginning of a pattern that leads to bigger brains overall.
Autism Spectrum Disorder (or ASD) is a complex developmental disability characterized by difficulties in social interaction, verbal and nonverbal communication, and repetitive behaviors or interests.
They then noted which children had been diagnosed with autism based on criteria in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, and designed a machine-learning algorithm to discern the differences in their brains.
The results of the MRI indicated that the brain differences between the ages of 6 months to 1 year were successful in predicting whether the child in question met the criteria for autism 80 percent of the time, according to the study report, published by the National Institutes of Health. "So for children like my Padric who's the youngest of four boys and the oldest has Autism, I mean that would be great if he were an infant and we had something we could go to that 'we will follow your child through these scans and developmental tests, ' and then be able to get you the earliest intervention we can if we see markers for Autism, that's unbelievable". The earlier behavioral treatment starts, the better it works. The researchers note that the greater the brain overgrowth, the more severe a child's autistic symptoms tended to be.
The researchers made measurements of cortical surface areas and cortical thickness at 6 and 12 months of age and studied the rate of growth between 6 and 12 months of age. When combined with brain volume and sex of the infants, it predicted most of the ASD cases among the group.
"We don't have such a tool yet, but if we did, parents of high-risk infants wouldn't need to wait for a diagnosis of autism spectrum disorder at two, three or even four years", said Annette Estes, a co-author on the study and director of the University of Washington in Seattle. In a separate study published January 6 in Cerebral Cortex, the researchers identified specific brain regions that may be important for acquiring an early social behavior called joint attention, which is orienting attention toward an object after another person points to it. "Using brain imaging, we were able to pinpoint areas of the brain where atypical development contributes to autism".
"There's a developmental sequence", he said, "and it raises the possibility that we could sort of disrupt that sequence early on". In this behavior-often impaired in ASD-a baby focuses on an object and draws another person's attention to that object. The data came from brain scans of 34 baby sibs with autism and 145 baby sibs without the condition, all participants in IBIS. "The more data we build in, the more accurate it will get".
'Putting this into the larger context of neuroscience research and treatment, there is now a big push within the field of neurodegenerative diseases to be able to detect the biomarkers of these conditions before patients are diagnosed, at a time when preventive efforts are possible, ' Piven said. Other clinical sites included Children's Hospital of Philadelphia, the University of Washington, and Washington University in St. Louis. "We haven't had a way to detect the biomarkers of autism before the condition sets in and symptoms develop", he said. Other key collaborators are at the Montreal Neurological Institute, the University of Alberta and New York University. "Now we have very promising leads that suggest this may in fact be possible".
Heather Cody Hazlett, et al "Early Brain Development in Infants at High Risk for Autism Spectrum Disorder" Nature, in print February 16, 2017. That change happened before the child's first birthday.