Researchers studying new test to catch sibling autism early

New statistics show that autism affects one in 88 children in the U.S. Catching it early is key in treating the problem. Now, special imaging may help detect autism sooner than ever before.

Little Gracie goes everywhere big brother Seth goes.

But her parents hope Gracie does not follow in Seth's footsteps when it comes to one thing: Seth has autism.

"I was concerned about it," said their dad Tony Whitaker.

Siblings have a one in five chance of developing autism. So Gracie was enrolled in a one-of-a-kind study.

UNC researchers used a special kind of MRI imaging called “diffusion tensor imaging” to look at 15 brain connections of babies who had a sibling with autism.

They found significant differences in 12 of the 15 connections in those who developed autism.

Kids without the disorder have stronger connections. Kids with autism are more likely to have a weaker connection.

Dr. Jason Wolff is a Postdoctoral fellow at the University of North Carolina School of Medicine

"The children who went on to have autism, we can see differences as early as six months,” he said. Over time, their brains changed less."

Right now, it's almost impossible to diagnose autism at six months. These scans could offer a way to catch it much earlier.

"This is really before we can pick up any differences behaviorally," said Dr. Wolff. "If we could go earlier and earlier in our interventions, we could prevent autism from fully manifesting."

Gracie seems to be developing normally, a relief to her parents who say their little girl is a big part of helping Seth deal with his disorder.

"We can't imagine where Seth would be if it wasn't for Gracie," said Sally, their mom.

Dr. Wolff says the imaging could one day be used with behavioral exams, which are the current standard to better diagnose autism. The hope is to catch it before signs start to show.

A recent study published in Pediatrics found when children as young as 18 months underwent therapy for autism, their IQ improved by 14 points compared to other kids with autism.

BACKGROUND: Autism is a general term for a group of complex disorders of brain development. These disorders are characterized by difficulties in social interaction, verbal and nonverbal communication, and repetitive behaviors. Autism can be associated with intellectual disability, difficulties in motor coordination, and attention and physical health issues such as sleep and gastrointestinal disturbances. Some with certain types of autism excel in visual skills, music, math and art. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, about 1 in 88 children in the United States has autism. This is a 10-fold increase in prevalence in 40 years. Studies also show that autism is three- to four-times more common in boys. About 1 out of 54 boys and about 1 out of 252 girls are diagnosed with autism in the United States. This is more children than are affected by diabetes, AIDS, cancer, cerebral palsy, cystic fibrosis, muscular dystrophy or Downs syndrome combined. Government statistics suggest that prevalence rates have increased 10 to 17 percent annually in recent years.

DIAGNOSING AUTISM: Research now suggests that children as young as 1 year of age can show signs of autism. It's important to diagnose autism as soon as possible because early intervention may be a child's best hope. Some red flags that may suggest a child should be screened include:
* No big smiles or joyful expressions by 6 months or thereafter
* No back-and-forth sharing of sounds, smiles, or other facial expressions by 9 months or thereafter
* No babbling by 12 months
* No back-and-forth gestures such as pointing, showing, reaching or waving by 12 months
* No words by 16 months
* No two-word meaningful phrases by 24 months
* Any loss of speech or babbling or social skills at any age

IMAGING STUDY: A new study, led by researchers from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, found significant differences in brain development starting at 6 months of age in high-risk infants who later develop autism. The study suggests that autism does not appear suddenly in young children, but instead, develops over time during infancy. Researchers studied 92 infants who had older siblings with autism and were therefore considered to be at high-risk themselves. All participants had diffusion tensor imaging -- which is a type of MRI -- at 6 months and behavioral assessments at 24 months. Most also had additional brain imaging scans at either or both 12 and 24 months. At 24 months, 30 percent of the infants met the criteria for autism spectrum disorders while 70 percent did not. The two groups differed in white matter fiber tract development -- pathways that connect brain regions -- as measured by fractional anisotropy. This measures white matter organization and development based on the movement of water molecules through brain tissue. The researchers studied 15 separate fiber tracts. They found significant differences in FA trajectories in 12 out of the 15 tracts between infants who did develop autism versus those who did not. Infants who later developed autism had elevated fractional anisotropy at 6 months but then experienced slower change over time. By 24 months, infants with autism had lower FA values than those without autism.
(SOURCE: University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill press release)


Jason Wolff, Ph.D.
Carolina Institute for Developmental Disabilities
University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

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