Identifying Autism Earlier

Brain scans can detect autism in toddlers

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

(RxWiki News) The causes of autism are still not understood, and up until now diagnoses of autistic children have been made based on behavioral symptoms. This meant a diagnosis was only made after age three or four.

But a new method that involves scanning the brain activity of children much younger than this, could identify the signs of autism much earlier.

"If you suspect autism in your child, ask about a brain scan."

By scanning the brain of sleeping children, scientists have discovered that autistic children exhibit significantly weaker synchronization between the brain areas that have to do with language and communication.

Professor Rafael Malach headed a study at the Weizmann Institute’s Department of Neurobiology in Rehovot, Israel, in conjunction with researchers at Carnegie Mellon University and the University of California, San Diego.

Scientists have believed that autism disorders were caused by faulty lines of communication between different parts of the brain, but there was no way to observe this until children reached at least three or four years of age and exhibited the signs behaviorally. But because the brain does not actually shut off during sleep, Malach's team found that MRI scans of brain activity on very young toddlers while they slept, offered evidence of such autistic signs.

Dr. Ilan Dinstein, a member of the research group, said, "Identifying biological signs of autism has been a major goal for many scientists around the world, both because they may allow early diagnosis, and because they can provide researchers with important clues about the causes and development of the disorder.

Scans of autistic toddlers showed lower patterns of brain synchronization that were not found in children with normal development. In fact, the weaker the synchronization, the more severe the symptoms of autism. On the basis of the scans, the scientists were able to identify 70 percent of the autistic children between the ages of one and three.

“This biological measurement could help diagnose autism at a very early stage," said Dinstein. The results were published in the July 2011 issue of Neuron.

Reviewed by: 
Review Date: 
July 27, 2011
Last Updated:
July 28, 2011