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17 February 2017, 12:33 | Sheila Harris
Autism signs may be detectable at 12 months, study says
Hazlett and Piven's team then used a deep-learning neural network, a form of machine learning, to ask if MRI scans at 6 and 12 months in a larger set of high-risk infants could predict an autism diagnosis at age 2. The team focused their work on babies with older siblings diagnosed with autism; these brothers and sisters have a 20% higher risk of also developing autism, compared to newborns without affected siblings.
"Typically, the earliest we can reliably diagnose autism in a child is age 2 when there are consistent behavioural symptoms".
The current research was only performed in babies with older siblings who had autism, but those who performed the studysaid the results may be useful to the general population eventually.
"We view this is, particularly in this high-familial risk sample, as a very real possibility of pre-symptomatic detection", Piven said.
But the brain scan doesn't actually diagnose autism.
However, she added: "One of the issues, at the moment, is when parents get an autism diagnosis, they don't get much information about what to do next".
The brain differences as computed by the algorithm were shown to correctly predict 8 out of the 10 children who would later go on to develop autism.
"It was a small study, a little over 100 kids, so I don't know that we can now say as pediatricians, we should order MRIs for all these kids", O'Reilly noted.
Brain scans could identify babies most at risk of developing autism, study shows
Therefore interventionist measures have to begin early onwards to facilitate the infants towards recovery from autism. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimate that one in 68 children meet criteria for ASD.
Some had older siblings with autism and were considered high-risk.
However, the breakthrough faces one major setback that stalled researchers' efforts of effectively screening for autism as quickly as possible.
The team was careful to point out this early brain growth may not exclusively be linked to autism - the characteristics may also be shared with other neurodevelopmental disorders - but the findings could have implications for "early detection and intervention" of spectrum disorders generally, and researcher Joseph Piven told the BBC there is the "possibility we can identify those who are most likely to go on to get autism". At the same time, the technique employed nearly flawlessly predicted which babies at high risk of developing the disease would not suffer from autism.
"These longitudinal imaging studies, which follow the same infants as they grow older, are really starting to hone in on critical brain developmental processes that can distinguish children who go on to develop ASD and those who do not", said Dager. Other key collaborators were New York University, the College of Charleston, McGill University and the University of Alberta.
Experimental research may lead to a new method to diagnose infants with autism before symptoms show. That change happened before the child's first birthday.
Numerous measurements the algorithm relied on most are related to surface area, and came from 6-month-old children.
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