The algorithm correctly predicted the eventual diagnosis in high-risk children with 81 percent accuracy and 88 percent sensitivity.
Piven and his team report their findings in the February 15 issue of Nature. But there was a significant increase in the brain surface area of the high-risk children who were later diagnosed with autism.
Measuring changes in infants' brain growth can allow doctors to predict the likelihood that they will be diagnosed with autism in their toddler years, according to research published Wednesday by two University of Minnesota researchers. "But in our study, brain imaging biomarkers at 6 and 12 months were able to identify babies who would be later diagnosed with ASD". The new findings hold particular promise for families of children who are at high-risk for the disorder, and may have practical implications for them "in the not too distant future", Piven argued.
"There's a developmental sequence", he said, "and it raises the possibility that we could sort of disrupt that sequence early on". This analytic approach was also nearly flawless in predicting which high-risk babies would not develop autism by age 2 years.
Autism, or autism spectrum disorder, refers to a broad range of brain development abnormalities that cause struggles with learning, social interaction and verbal and nonverbal communication.
It is estimated that one out of 68 children develop autism in the United States. Just over 100 of the children were at high risk because they had an older sibling diagnosed with autism.
This research was led by researchers at the Carolina Institute for Developmental Disabilities (CIDD) at the University of North Carolina, which is directed by the study's senior author, Joseph Piven, MD, the Thomas E. Castelloe Distinguished Professor of Psychiatry at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill. Other key collaborators are McGill University, the University of Alberta, the College of Charleston, and New York University. "Now we have very promising leads that suggest this may in fact be possible".
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One thing the study could not show is whether there is anything different about the autism in families that have more than one child with the condition, compared with autism that seems to have no familial connection. "We could not have made these discoveries without their wholehearted participation".
The researchers also found brain changes between 6 and 12 months, before ASD symptoms appeared. On each lab visit, scientists assessed the children's behaviour and intellectual abilities.
The MRIs revealed that babies who eventually developed autism experienced much more rapid growth of their brain's surface area ― essentially, the folds on the surface of the brain ― in their first year than children who did not develop the disorder. The researchers note that the greater the brain overgrowth, the more severe a child's autistic symptoms tended to be.
The research team used MRI technology to measure brain development for each infant at set time points between 6 months and 24 months of age. This group is easier to study than the general population because fewer test subjects are needed to find children who will go on to develop autism. "Early diagnosis in autism does make a difference". "Once you've missed those developmental milestones, catching up is a struggle for many and almost impossible for some". Enlarged brain volume has previously been observed in children with autism. Usually, babies that have otherwise progressed normally will start showing subtle changes in behavior: difficulty focusing or speaking with others, or trouble pointing at objects. They also looked at the surface area and thickness of the cerebral cortex, the brain's outer layer. During the intervening years, studies of younger and younger children showed that this brain "overgrowth" occurs in childhood.
Adapted from a release by the UNC news office.