Study: MRIs may detect autism as early as six months of age

Finding could help physicians implement early interventions in high-risk children

February 21, 2012

Researchers have observed brain development discrepancies in autistic children as young as six months old, a finding that could allow physicians to identify high-risk children months before parents usually notice symptoms.

In a study published in the American Journal of Psychiatry, University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill researchers conducted MRI brain scans on 92 infants considered at a higher risk of developing autism because they had an older, autistic sibling. They conducted the scans at six months, one year, and two years of age.

According to the findings, 28 of the children in the study developed autism. Based on the MRI scans, the researchers found that those children demonstrated key differences in brain pathway development. At six months, the children with autism exhibited more development than children without autism. Specifically, they had increased anxonal diameter, myelination, and fiber density in some areas of the brain. However, by 24 months, the autistic children's brain development had fallen behind that of their non-autistic peers. 

Most parents of autistic children begin to identify symptoms between ages one and two, and most children are not officially diagnosed until age five. According to the study's authors, the findings may help identify infants at a high risk of developing autism early, which "offers the possibility of implementing interventions that could reduce or even prevent the manifestation of the full syndrome" (Szabo, USA Today, 2/17; Walsh, MedPage Today, 2/17).

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