Today, most parents have to wait until their child is at least 2 years old before they can get a solid autism diagnosis and (hopefully) dive into early intervention. But what if doctors had a test that could spot autism much earlier, based on how your baby's brain is changing? And what could the possibility of such a test mean for the vaccine-autism debate?
Doctors at the University of North Carolina have just published a study in the scientific journal Nature which suggests signs of autism may begin to appear in a baby's brain at as young as 6 months -- well before the appearance of the more recognizable symptoms that send parents to the doctor with questions, and well before American kids get the much-debated MMR vaccine.
Debunking the vaccine/autism link wasn't the main impetus for the study, lead author Dr. Heather Hazlett tells CafeMom. "But it does prove there are changes to the brain before anything is seen," she says. "It does kind of break that link -- or weaken that link."
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The study is a follow-up of sorts to one Hazlett and colleague Dr. Joseph Piven of the IBIS (Infant Brain Imaging Study) Network completed several years ago that showed brain enlargement in toddlers with an autism diagnosis. The doctors decided to look at younger children who have older siblings on the spectrum -- kids who are considered "high risk" for their own diagnosis.
They began studying the brains of 150 infants, measuring how the brain changed from MRIs at ages 6 months to a year to 24 months. Faster growth rates of the brain were associated with autism eight out of 10 times, with evidence of advanced growth as young as the six-month mark. What's more, Hazlett said the enlargement seemed to coincide with social deficits, although ones that might not otherwise have been indicative of an autism diagnosis.
"The more enlargement, the more symptoms," she says.
Big news, but don't go booking an MRI for your baby anytime soon.
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The study will have to be replicated with larger groups of kids and with kids who aren't considered high risk, Hazlett says. What's more, MRIs are both expensive and difficult to do on small children (the IBIS researchers have to wait for babies to fall asleep, as they don't use sedation), so any test that could come out of additional study would still be limited in its practical use. It's unlikely to become de rigueur for pediatricians.
That said, Hazlett says there are a number of reasons for parents to take heart with this news. Aside from putting another nail in the vaccine/autism coffin, the study provides boundless information for other studies.
For example, she says, there are genes associated with the portions of the brain that showed enlargement in this study, something that geneticists can now look at. "We're really far from the time there might be a medicine or a drug trial, but this tells those kinds of researchers what to look for," Hazlett notes.
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The researchers have also collected DNA from the children in the study and their families, which can be used by scientists who are reviewing possible environmental impacts (such as toxic metal exposure or air pollution) on autism.
So while the study may not help families who have newborns today, it could help countless families down the road. And so can you! The folks at IBIS are currently recruiting subjects for their next study. Enter your details, and your family could help pave the way for the next autism breakthrough.