Scanning babies' brains for autism


by KING 5 Children's Healthlink

Posted on July 3, 2012 at 12:00 PM

Updated Tuesday, Jul 3 at 5:24 PM

Little Gracie follows along everywhere her big brother Seth goes. They are constant playmates. But their parents hope Gracie doesn't follow in Seth's footsteps when it comes to one thing. Seth lives with autism.

"I was concerned about it." said Tony Whitaker, Seth and Gracie's father.

That's because siblings of a child with autism have a one in five chance of developing the disorder. So her parents enrolled  Gracie in a unique study.

Researchers used a special kind of Magnetic Resonance Imaging, or MRI, to look at 15 brain connections of babies who had a sibling with autism. The type of MRI is known as diffusion tensor imaging. The researchers found significant differences in 12 of the 15 connections in babies who later developed autism.  Kids without autism had stronger connections, which showed up as bright colors in the scan. Weaker connection, seen in autism, showed up as more muted colors.

"The children who went on to have autism, we can see differences as early as six months, and that over time, their brains changed less," explained Jason Wolff Ph.D.. Postdoctoral Fellow at the University of North Carolina School of Medicine. He led the autism siblings study just published in the American Journal of Psychiatry.

Being able to identify children early is crucial. Right now it's nearly impossible to diagnose autism at six months.

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

"Let's be a goat, baaa baaa," called Gracie as she played. The little girl seems to be developing normally, a relief to her parents who say she's a big part of helping Seth deal with his autism.

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

The researchers say more study is needed before the brain scans can be used to diagnose autism in individual kids. Researchers at the University of Washington participated in the study. You can learn more on their website or by calling 1-800-994-9701.

Resource links:

University of Washington study - Brain Development in Autism: Infant Siblings

Study on infants and autism published in American Journal of Psychiatry

What is autism?