The following is an excerpt from Outlook Magazine. For the complete story, click here.
Researchers have found significant differences in brain development in infants as young as 6 months old who later develop autism, compared with babies who don’t develop the disorder.
The study, conducted by scientists at Washington University School of Medicine, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and other centers, involved infants considered to be at high risk for autism because they had an older sibling with the diagnosis. The findings are published online in the American Journal of Psychiatry.
The new research, which relied on brain scans acquired at night while infants were sleeping naturally, suggests that autism doesn’t appear abruptly, but instead develops over time during infancy.
“We were surprised that there were so many differences so early in infancy,” says co-author Kelly N. Botteron, MD, who is leading the effort at the Washington University study site. “As this study moves forward, we may want to scan babies at even younger ages so that we can try to see how early this pattern is emerging.”
The new findings involved brain scans from 92 infants who had completed diffusion tensor imaging, a type of MRI scan, at 6 months and behavioral assessments at 24 months of age.
By 24 months, 28 of the infants met the diagnostic criteria for autism spectrum disorders. Scans of the infants with autism revealed changes in the pathways that connect brain regions to one another. In particular, researchers found changes in multiple fiber pathways in the brain’s white matter.
The changes were identified using fractional anisotropy (FA), a process that measures white matter organization and development, based on the movement of water molecules through brain tissue.
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