Groundbreaking new research out of the University of North Carolina suggests it may be possible to detect autism in babies before their first birthdays.
The results of a small study published in leading journal Nature showed that brain scans could be used to predict whether children might develop autism with 80% accuracy, allowing for early treatment long before symptoms appear. The average age for an autism diagnosis is typically four years.
MRI scans taken at six months, at 12 months and again at two years showed significant growth in brain volume during the first year in babies who would later present symptoms of autism, including avoiding eye contact, delayed speech and other developmental delays.
"If we can target interventions before autism appears and before the brain changes appear, during a time when the brain is highly malleable or plastic, we can have a bigger impact on the outcome," the study’s lead author, Dr. Joseph Piven, told NBC News.
The study involved MRI scans on 106 infants with older siblings who had autism and 42 infants whose families had no history of the disorder. According to the study, infants with an older sibling who has autism have about a one in five chance of developing autism spectrum disorder, as opposed to one in 100 odds for the general population.
"But now we are entering the era of possibly detecting autism before the symptoms are even present," Piven said.
Mathew Pletcher, vice president and head of genomic discovery at Autism Speaks, says the new study further stresses the importance of early diagnosis. "Decreasing the age of diagnosis, even by a couple years, could have profound impacts for the entire lifetime of that particular person," Pletcher told NBC News.