MRI scans can predict babies at risk of autism

Cathy QuinnFeb 17 , 2017

Having a reliable tool for early diagnosis could help researchers to test interventions, because it would help them to determine whether a treatment is working or not, adds Piven.

In a potential breakthrough in the fight against autism, a study has found that there's a way to detect the risk of autism within the first year of a child's life.

Experts say that may be too late in terms of treating or minimizing the effects of autism, since whatever brain changes responsible for them have already taken place.

Now autism can reliably be diagnosed as early as age 2, but most kids aren't flagged until after age 4, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In the general population in the United States, autism is diagnosed in about one in 68. Of those, 81 percent predicted to develop autism did so, and in about 3 percent, autism was predicted but did not develop. More specifically, their brains' cortical surface area-the folded, rippled outside layer of the brain-grew faster in the first 6 to 12 months compared to those without a diagnosis.

It shows that autism, which was once thought to be incurable, does have a solution provided that the treatment begins from the start. The scans were conducted at 6, 12 and 24 months. And the team was pleased with the prediction accuracy.

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Could these brain changes be used to predict autism diagnosis in infants?

The diagnostic method is far from ready to apply in clinics, though; it needs to be confirmed in much larger studies.

"Being able to identify those needing intervention before the full emergence of autism", said Schultz, a study coauthor, "offers hope for being able to blunt the development of autism and dramatically improve outcomes".

For the second part of the experiment, the team created an algorithm that used the scans to correctly predict the onset of autism in 8 out of 10 high-risk infants.

"It provides new clues about the timing and specific mechanisms of brain development that precede a diagnosis", he said.

As it turned out, the computer program accurately predicted autism in eight out of ten subjects who subsequently developed autism by their second birthday. The symptoms of autism consist of not making eye contact, development delays, and delayed speech. All were given the MRI scans. In this behavior-often impaired in ASD-a baby focuses on an object and draws another person's attention to that object. But brain scans could help, a small study suggests. They assessed the growth of the brain using a computer-generated algorithm. Most children aren't diagnosed until they are two or older, when clear behavioral signs emerge.

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"It's not simply generalized overgrowth", says Gordon Ramsay, director of the Spoken Communication Laboratory at the Marcus Autism Center in Atlanta, Georgia, who was not involved in the study.

"But now we are entering the era of possibly detecting autism before the symptoms are even present", Piven said.

The National Institutes of Health funded this study. Other key collaborators are McGill University, the University of Alberta, the University of Minnesota, the College of Charleston and New York University. But for infants with an autistic older sibling, the risk may be as high as one out of every five births.

About Children's Hospital of Philadelphia: Children's Hospital of Philadelphia was founded in 1855 as the nation's first pediatric hospital. She now has three more boys.

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The study was funded by the National Institutes of Health and was published online Wednesday in the journal, Lancet Psychiatry . The researchers also looked at the effect of age, gender, medication and other psychiatric disorders.


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