Brain Scans May Predict Autism in Children

MRIs at 6 to 12 months of age have predicted the diagnosis of autism in high-risk infants

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It may be possible to predict autism in high-risk infants according to research published in Nature. They studied a high-risk group consisting of 106 infants who had an older sibling with autism and a low-risk group of 42 infants who had no immediately family history of autism. They conducted MRI scans at 6,12 at 24 months of age to measure the infant’s overall volume (brain), surface area and thickness of the cerebral cortex.

Researchers discovered a hyper expansion of the cortical surface area in infants later diagnosed with autism compared to normally developing infants.

Next, they developed a deep-learning algorithm using surface area information from magnetic resonance imaging (MRI scans) of the brain of 6–12-month-old infants and predicted the diagnosis of autism in individual high-risk children at 24 months with a positive predictive value of 81%.

Researchers say this means that the brain was growing significantly between the age of 12-24 months for children who later developed autism.

The cerebral cortex is the most important part of the brain with 20 billion neurons carrying out important mental functions. It is involved in planning actions, movements and thoughts. It receives information from sensory organs and is involved in language and information processing.

Researchers say that more work is needed since their sample size was small (148 infants in total). The findings do not offer a cure or pinpoint a specific cause. However, autistic children benefit substantially from early diagnosis and intervention methods.

Joseph Piven, a professor of psychiatry, psychology and pediatrics at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill told CNBC that similar research can help detect other brain disorders earlier in life, such as Parkinson’s or Alzheimer’s, before they begin to impair patients.

Autism, or autism spectrum disorder, is usually diagnosed at four years of age and is characterised with an impairment of social skills, repetitive and restrictive behaviours and poor verbal and non-verbal communication. Typical signs include maintaining little eye contact, repetitive behaviour and hyper focusing on a single interest. They may also be very sensitive to light, sound and temperature.

There are ten million autistic children in India alone. It is believed that 1 percent of the world population has autism spectrum disorder.