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How MRI scans could diagnose autism in infants

Researchers say the scans can detect the condition within the first year of life

Photo (c) Jochen Sand - Getty Images
A new study suggests that magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scans could be used to identify signs of an autism spectrum disorder (ASD) within a baby’s first year of life.

Symptoms associated with these disorders normally don’t manifest until after infants are at least a year old, but the researchers say these scans may provide a noninvasive method for detecting autism at its earliest stages, when interventions may be the most beneficial.

“Behaviors in the first year or even first year and a half are not good predictors of who will develop autism, but in our…study we found that using MRI scans from 6 and 12 months could predict with high accuracy…8 out of 10 infants who would go on to meet criteria for autism at 24 months of age,” said senior author Dr. Joseph Piven.

Determining autism risk

Experts estimate that as many as 1 in 5 infants who have an older sibling with ASD will also go on to develop the condition themselves, while only 1 in 100 infants in the general population are at risk. Piven points out that providing scans for these at-risk infants can help detect autism early on and jump-start interventions before brain changes associated with the disease become solidified.

“I believe that most parents with a newborn and an older child with autism would be very willing to do a single scan—during natural sleep—in their baby to determine their risk for autism,” he said.

Researchers have long pointed out that early assessment of autism is the key to providing timely therapeutic interventions. Piven says that further research will be needed to discover additional risk factors to help speed up these diagnoses.

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