(NBC News) - Results from a small study suggest that it may be possible to detect autism in babies before their first birthdays. Researchers at the University of North Carolina were able to predict - with 80% accuracy - which babies with an older sibling with autism would later be diagnosed with the disorder through the use of magnetic-resonance imaging scans.
Brain imaging in babies who later met the criteria for autism showed significant growth in brain volume during the first year. "It's the first marker of any sort, brain or behavior, in infants, to predict which individuals would be classified as autistic at 24 months of age," said Dr. Joseph Piven, senior author of the study and director of the Carolina Institute for Developmental Disabilities in Carrboro, North Carolina. The report was published Wednesday in the journal Nature.
The new study is experimental, and more research is needed before MRI scans could be used as clinical tests for autism, Piven said. And because it was tested only on high-risk infants, it's also unclear whether the procedure would help predict autism in typical, healthy families. But it's a major step forward in how early autism can be detected, even before symptoms appear.
By lowering the age of diagnosis for a child with autism, the earlier that behavioral intervention or treatment can be provided — and the more profound the benefits in communication and social skills could be.
"If we can target interventions before autism appears and before the brain changes appear, during a time when the brain is highly malleable or plastic, we can have a bigger impact on the outcome," Piven said.
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