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MRIs predict which high-risk babies will develop autism

By Chukwuma Muanya, Assistant Editor   |   20 February 2017   |   3:53 am

Using magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) in infants with older siblings with autism, researchers from around the country were able to correctly predict 80 percent of those infants who would later meet criteria for autism at two years of age.

Using magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) in infants with older siblings with autism, researchers from around the country were able to correctly predict 80 percent of those infants who would later meet criteria for autism at two years of age.

The study, published in Nature, is the first to show it is possible to identify which infants — among those with older siblings with autism — will be diagnosed with autism at 24 months of age.

“Our study shows that early brain development biomarkers could be very useful in identifying babies at the highest risk for autism before behavioral symptoms emerge,” said senior author Joseph Piven, MD, the Thomas E. Castelloe Distinguished Professor of Psychiatry at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill. “Typically, the earliest an autism diagnosis can be made is between ages two and three. But for babies with older autistic siblings, our imaging approach may help predict during the first year of life which babies are most likely to receive an autism diagnosis at 24 months.”


This research project included hundreds of children from across the country and was led by researchers at the Carolina Institute for Developmental Disabilities (CIDD) at the University of North Carolina, where Piven is director. The project’s other clinical sites included the University of Washington, Washington University in St. Louis, and The Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia. Other key collaborators are McGill University, the University of Alberta, the University of Minnesota, the College of Charleston, and New York University.

“This study could not have been completed without a major commitment from these families, many of whom flew in to be part of this,” said first author Heather Hazlett, PhD, assistant professor of psychiatry at the UNC School of Medicine and a CIDD researcher. “We are still enrolling families for this study, and we hope to begin work on a similar project to replicate our findings.”

People with Autism Spectrum Disorder (or ASD) have characteristic social deficits and demonstrate a range of ritualistic, repetitive and stereotyped behaviours.




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