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Can Brain Imaging Detect Autism in Children?

Experts say that an estimated number of 1 in every 68 children is diagnosed with autism. Symptoms of autism typically develop when the child is between the ages of 1 and 1-1/2 years old and are oftentimes characterized by poor communication skills and behavioral problems. By the time the child turns 2 years old, definitive diagnosis is made through physical examinations, developmental screening tests, MRI, EEG, and laboratory tests.

 

Although autism has no cure, early detection is very important since it has a positive impact on the child’s life. Unfortunately, the ways to detect autism in early childhood is very limited. Knowing the risk factors can help, especially if there are other family members who were diagnosed with autism. But aside from knowing the risk factors, parents usually only bring their child to a doctor when he begins to show autism symptoms such as poor social and communication skills.

 

Brain Growth in Infants with Autism

Significant brain growth happens when the child is between 6 months and 12 months of age. However, one study has shown that brain growth is even more accentuated in infants with autism, compared to those without autism, and these changes can be detected as early as 6 months of age through MRI scans. The rapid brain growth in infants with autism accounts for the larger brain people diagnosed with autism usually have.

During the study, MRI scans of the participating infants were taken when they were 6, 12, and 24 months of age and compared for differences. Their study revealed that between 6 and 12 months of age, the growth rate of the brain surface in children with autism is faster compared to those without autism. It also revealed that, between 12 and 24 months of age, the overall brain size of children with autism grows faster and is bigger compared to those without autism.

Although it’s still unclear exactly how the difference in brain size affects infants, but the rapid production of brain cells and the cascade of brain changes may have contributed to the development of autism by the time the child turns two years old.

 

Detecting Autism in Infants

A new study done this year supported the findings of the latter that significant brain changes do occur prior to the development of autism symptoms.

59 infants participated in the new study. They were all six months of age and considered high risk because of older siblings diagnosed with autism. Instead of using MRI though, the researchers used functional connectivity magnetic resonance imaging or fcMRI. Not only can it detect brain size, but it can also detect how the different parts of the brain “work together” when the infants were awake and doing cognitive tasks or when they were sleeping.

The results were promising. The researchers found about 974 functional connections in the infants’ brains that have been associated with autism behaviors.

Using machine learning, a computer-based technology, the researchers were able to identify the infants who will develop autism and those who will not. The machine gathered the differences found by the neuroimaging technique based on the functional brain connections and functional brain connections associated with autism. It grouped the results into two sets: non-autism and autism.

When the infants turned two years old, they were able to accurately predict all those who did not develop autism and 82% of those who did develop autism. In another group of infants, the accuracy rate of their fcMRI and machine learning was 93%.

 

Clinical Significance

Although the results were promising, the need to do more studies to confirm their results is emphasized, the researchers said.

For one, of the 59 participants, the machine predicted 9 infants will go on to develop autism, but in fact, when they turned two years of age, 11 of them did. They missed two children.

Two, there is also the need to replicate the study on a larger group of participants.

But it can’t be denied though that this new technique of detecting autism in infants at an early age is already a huge step forward. If the results of future studies are positive, not only will the detection of brain differences help physicians properly diagnose autism, but early therapeutic interventions will also be able to help more children. This new technique will also help physicians assess if a child is at risk for the development of autism or not.

If you suspect your child might have symptoms of autism, especially if an older sibling or another family member has been diagnosed with this disorder, it’s important that you bring him to his pediatrician immediately for evaluation, assessment, and treatment.

Treatment includes behavioral training as well as behavioral management, medications to control autism symptoms (hyperactivity, anxiety, increased stress, depression, obsessive-compulsive behaviors, acting out, etc.), and specialized therapy (physical therapy, speech therapy, and occupation therapy). Parent counseling and training are also recommended.

Autism has no cure. Although the child can grow up relatively independent, autism will continue to pose significant challenges to the child as he’s growing up. A negative outcome can be better prevented by early detection and intervention, and techniques like MRI, fcMRI, and machine learning classifiers may just give the child and his doctor that edge.