Early Brain Differences Linked to Autism Risk

Autism may be preceded by abnormal brain growth in children between 6 months and 2 years old

/ Author:  / Reviewed by: Joseph V. Madia, MD

(RxWiki News) Early detection of autism spectrum disorders (ASD) is important. New research suggests that early brain differences may exist for children at high risk for ASD.

Preliminary findings from an ongoing study showed that boys who were diagnosed with ASD at 2 years of age and were at high risk had a different pattern of brain growth between 6 months and 2 years of age.

The researchers conclude that, if the rest of the data follows the same pattern, this may be evidence that brain changes may start occurring before children are one year old. 

Understanding these differences may lead to improved detection and intervention for very young children at risk for ASD.

"Ask your child’s pediatrician about ASD risk factors."

Heather Hazlett, PhD, of the Carolina Institute for Developmental Disabilities at the University of North Carolina and colleagues, reported preliminary findings from an ongoing trial looking at brain volume between ages 6 months and 2 years in children at high risk for autism. High-risk children had a sibling with autism.

At the time of this report, the researchers had data on 112 high-risk infants and 17 low-risk infants.  They used magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) to scan the brains of these children at 6 months, 12 months and 24 months of age. They also performed tests for ASD symptoms at the 24 month visit.

They found that male infants who were high risk and met criteria for ASD at 24 months of age had increased brain growth between 6 months and 24 months compared to low-risk infants and high-risk infants who did not meet criteria for ASD.

Brain growth was calculated by changes over time in volume and brain matter. All calculations of brain growth and size were adjusted for body size, age and gender according to the World Health Organization growth standards information.

These are early results from an ongoing trial so, as more participants complete the trial, the results may change.

The authors conclude, “These findings suggest that early differences in brain growth emerge in the first two years of life and raise the optimistic possibility that there is a window of opportunity where early postnatal intervention, during a period of tremendous brain plasticity, may have an important impact on the later emergence of autistic behavior.”

This study was presented May 17, 2012 at the International Meeting for Autism Research in Toronto, Canada.

The research has not been published in a peer-reviewed journal, so it may not have had the chance to be inspected by other scientists to ensure that it meets scientific standards.

Reviewed by: 
Review Date: 
June 3, 2012
Last Updated:
August 24, 2012