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Brain differences found in infants who develop autism

A composite image of white matter pathways in the brains of infants at risk for autism.
(Photo: Jason Wolff/UNC)
A composite image of white matter pathways in the brains of infants at risk for autism.

New research shows that differences in the brain development of autistic children are already visible in infants as young as 6 months old.

Researchers at four study sites nationwide used a type of MRI scan to look at brain development in the younger siblings of autistic children, who are known to be at higher risk for autism themselves.

Ninety-two children were scanned at 6, 12, and 24 months of age, while the children were sleeping.

Child psychiatrist Dr. Kelly Botteron led the study at Washington University.

“We were able to detect differences in brain structure as early as 6 months of age, in the children who later went on to develop autism,” Botteron said. “And the trajectory of change from 6 to 12 to 24 months was particularly different between the children that went on to develop autism, and those that did not.”

Specifically, differences in the brain pathways or white matter of the autistic children were revealed by the scans.

“It’s not at a diagnostic status yet,” Botteron cautioned. “In no case could we scan a child and say, from the scan, individual scan, that your child is likely to develop autism.”

But Botteron says this research is a first step toward being able to identify children at risk before they have any behavioral changes.

Botteron says the study is still ongoing and actively recruiting participants. More information is available here, or by calling (888) 845-6786.

The study is published in the American Journal of Psychiatry.

The research was funded by the National Institute of Child Health and Development of the National Institutes of Health, Autism Speaks, and the Simons Foundation. Further support was provided by the National Alliance for Medical Image Computing, funded by the National Institute of Biomedical Imaging and Bioengineering.