As part of the Infant Brain Imaging Study, a U.S. National Institues of Health-funded study of early brain development in autism, the research team enrolled 106 infants with an older sibling who had been given an autism diagnosis, and 42 infants with no family history of autism.
The researchers saw no change in any of the babies' overall brain growth between 6- and 12-month mark.
Researchers used magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) technology to capture brain images of infants who are considered at high risk for developing autism spectrum disorder (ASD) by virtue of having an older sibling with ASD. Larger brain size has been associated with ASD. The earlier behavioral treatment starts, the better it works. Brain overgrowth was tied to the emergence of autistic social deficits in the second year.
"We're looking at this as an option for high-risk children", Elison said.
The analysis was most accurate in predicting the high-risk babies that did not develop autism, they added.
Current estimates suggest 1 in 68 children in the United States have been identified with autism, and while early intervention ― which at this point typically means behavioral therapy ― can be highly beneficial in managing and even erasing symptoms, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says most children do not get diagnosed until closer to age 4.
Right now the earliest a child can receive a reliable diagnosis of autism is generally thought to be age 2, at which point certain hallmark behaviors and communication problems have emerged, like an inability to string several words together or avoiding eye contact.
Jed Elison, a co-author of the study and an assistant professor at the U of M's Institute of Child Development, said the findings lay the foundation for scientists and doctors to move toward helping children before they are diagnosed. "So for children like my Padric who's the youngest of four boys and the oldest has Autism, I mean that would be great if he were an infant and we had something we could go to that 'we will follow your child through these scans and developmental tests, ' and then be able to get you the earliest intervention we can if we see markers for Autism, that's unbelievable". She now has three more boys. These measurements, combined with brain volume and sex of the infants predicted with a high degree of accuracy who would develop autism by age 24 months.
"The field has struggled to predict autism earlier and earlier", study researcher Dr. Joseph Piven of the Carolina Institute for Developmental Disabilities (CIDD) at the University of North Carolina told The Huffington Post. "If we are able to replicate these results in further studies, these findings promise to change how we approach infant and toddler screening for autism, making it possible to identify infants who will later develop autism before the behavioral symptoms of autism become apparent", Schultz said. This analytic approach was also nearly ideal in predicting which high-risk babies would not develop autism by age 2 years.
The molecular mechanisms underlying brain surface area expansion - many of which are known - may also provide clues to how autism unfolds, Piven says. This is the first time he's seen a machine-learning algorithm used to analyze infants' brain scans. "It's the ability to detect autism at its very earliest stages that's going to allow us to intervene before the full syndrome is manifest".
In the long run, it might be possible to do something similar for all infants if DNA testing advances enough to become a useful tool to identify children at high risk.