New research could help predict autism from infant brain scans

FILE - In this July 25, 2012 file photo, a pregnant woman is examined as she waits to give birth at a public hospital (AP Photo/Felipe Dana, File)

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. (WATE) – It may be possible to predict whether an infant will go on to develop autism, according to a study by the National Institutes of Health.

The study, lead by a team of researchers at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, scanned the brains of infants who had older siblings with autism. Researchers from around the country were able to correctly predict 80 percent of those infants who would later meet criteria for autism at two years of age.

Published in Nature, the study is the first to show it is possible to identify which infants — among those with older siblings with autism — will be diagnosed with autism at 24 months of age. Typically, the earliest autism diagnosis can be made is between ages two and three.

nature21369-sf1Researchers from around the country conducted MRI scans of infants at six, 12, and 24 months of age. They found that the babies who developed autism experienced a hyper-expansion of brain surface area from six to 12 months, as compared to babies who had an older sibling with autism but did not themselves show evidence of the condition at 24 months of age.

Further research is needed before it can be developed into a tool for diagnosing infants at high risk of developing autism, Heather Cody Hazlett, lead author of the study and a psychologist at the Carolina Institute for Developmental Disabilities and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill told CNN.

Common symptoms of autism include difficulty with communication and repetitive behaviors. In the United States, about one in 68 children has been identified with autism spectrum disorder, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Yet, for infants who have an autistic sibling, the risk of developing the disorder may be as high as one in five. The risk is only one in 100 for infants

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