CEHD autism research could lead to early diagnosis

Breakthrough Autism Research in Early Detection

A new autism research study demonstrates that specific patterns of brain development in the first year of life predicts whether infants at high risk for developing autism will receive an ASD diagnosis at 24 months.

This week, my colleagues, including Jason Wolff in the Department of Educational Psychology (CEHD), Heather Hazlett and Joe Piven (first author and senior author respectively) from the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, and I have published an autism research paper in the leading science journal Nature. This paper presents the findings from an ongoing ten-year study of infants at high risk for developing autism. The infants are at high risk because they have an older sibling diagnosed with autism. The study involved collecting MRIs during natural sleep when infants were 6, 12, and 24 months of age. We also collected information on behavioral development across this age interval.

This study was funded by grants from the National Institutes of Health, the Simons Foundation, and Autism Speaks and these findings represent a major breakthrough in autism research. The findings provide evidence that patterns of brain development differentiate high-risk infants who go to receive a diagnosis of autism as early as 6-12 months of age. The earlier we can identify children at high risk for autism, the earlier we can implement interventions that have been shown to improve outcomes for these children. I encourage you to read the Nature article for an in-depth review of our work; here are a few of our key findings:

  1. The surface area of the brain is expanding more rapidly from 6-12 months in children who develop autism.
  2. This surface area expansion predicts total brain overgrowth at 24 months in children diagnosed with autism.
  3. Rate of change in total brain volume from 12 to 24 months predicts level of autistic behavior at 24 months.
  4. Using MRI data at 6 and 12 months of age, we are able to predict with greater than 80% accuracy who will develop autism at 24 months.

We’re very excited by these results, and will follow up with more studies in the future. Ultimately, we hope that being able to identify children who are at a high risk for autism earlier can help them get treatments and interventions that will diminish their symptoms later in life.

Additional Media Coverage:

Star Tribune
Minnesota Public Radio
Spectrum News

Jed T. Elison

About the Author

Jed T. Elison, Ph.D.

  • Director, The Elison Lab for Developmental Brain & Behavior Research
  • Assistant Professor, Institute of Child Development

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