A team of scientists designed a method to positively identify early signs of autism in children under the age of 1 at highest risk of developing the disorder by their second birthday. Although in its first stages of development, the experimental technique employs brain screening and has been designed to focus solely on infants most susceptible to the disorder due to their family medical history.
However, the breakthrough faces one major setback that stalled researchers’ efforts of effectively screening for autism as quickly as possible. According to the medical community, infants do not usually display signs of the disease until the end of their second year of life.
Nevertheless, the researchers used scans to peek into the thickness, surface area, and shifting size of certain parts of an infant’s cerebral cortex as the subject goes through 6 and 12-month marks. By looking at the results, the scientists revealed they could identify early signs of autism with 80 percent accuracy.
“These findings suggest a cascade of brain changes across the first two years of life that result in the emergence of autism at the end of the second year”, said University of North Carolina’s head of the Carolina Institute for Developmental Disabilities and senior author of the study, Dr. Joseph Piven.
The scientists tested the new technique on 150 subjects, 100 of whom were at the highest risk of developing the disorder because of family medical history. Details of the study were published online in the journal Nature on Wednesday, February 15th. The authors pointed out that siblings of those who already had autism were five times more susceptible to the disease themselves.
Between 6 months of age and 2 years, the researchers said symptoms of the disorders are scarce, in spite of potential evidence of mental or motor dysfunctions. Nevertheless, using the new method, the scientists scanned the brains of the subjects at 6-month, 1-year, and 2-year marks. A computer-generated algorithm compiled the results by analyzing the scans of 6-month-olds up to 1-year-olds who displayed relatively high brain-surface growth. Researchers associate this with a higher overall brain size during the second year of life, which is already an established marker for autism.
As it turned out, the computer program accurately predicted autism in eight out of ten subjects who subsequently developed autism by their second birthday. At the same time, the technique employed almost flawlessly predicted which babies at high risk of developing the disease would not suffer from autism. However, researchers call for more work, as there is no telling yet of the social impact of this technique, especially as to how family members would react to such an early diagnosis.
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