Brain scans may allow researchers to detect autism before behavioral symptoms begin to develop, a new study published in the journal Nature reports.
Currently, the earliest a child can be diagnosed with autism is age two. Usually, the diagnosis comes even later in life. However, the new findings show that the signs of the disorder can be found during a baby’s first year.
Researchers from various U.S. universities made this discovery by performing brain scans on 148 children — some of which were at high risk for the disorder — while they were six, 12, and 24 months old.
The scans revealed that children with autism have distinct differences in their cerebral cortex, the section of the brain that is responsible for high-level functions like language. This switch happens very early in the first year.
“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,” explained senior author Joseph Piven, a Professor of Psychiatry at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, in a statement.
In the study, the team put the images into a machine able to predict which children would develop autism with 80 percent accuracy. This shows that MRI scans could be used to help families who already have an autistic child access earlier diagnosis for their future children, BBC News reports.
This finding could alter the way the autism is both treated and diagnosed. Scans could lead to earlier diagnoses, which could then make behavioral therapies more effective. There is even a chance it could one day be used on all infants if DNA testing advances enough to become a useful tool to identify children at high risk.
While there is no single test for autism, this is a big step towards getting a jump on it as quickly as possible. Early tests and therapies are much more effective on young brains, so starting sooner is always better than starting later.
“Putting this into the larger context of neuroscience research and treatment, there is currently a big push within the field of neurodegenerative diseases to be able to detect the biomarkers of these conditions before patients are diagnosed, at a time when preventive efforts are possible,” Piven said. “In Parkinson’s for instance, we know that once a person is diagnosed, they’ve already lost a substantial portion of the dopamine receptors in their brain, making treatment less effective.”