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Autism brain changes notable at six months of age

Kathleen Blanchard's picture
Brain changes associated with autism as age 6-months.

Researchers have discovered brain changes associated with autism that they were able to detect as early as six months of age. The new study found notable changes in the way white matter tracts develop in infants with the disorder.

The finding, published in the American Journal of Psychiatry, suggests autism develops during infancy; over time. Brain scans were performed on infants in the study at night during natural sleep.

The authors say the changes seen in the brain are important because it may allow researchers to develop a biomarker for autism for early intervention before symptoms appear.

Scientists at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and other centers, included infants at high risk with an older sibling with autism.

MRI brain scans were done at six months of age. The researchers performed behavioral assessment at age two.

Thirty percent of the infants studied met criteria for diagnosis of autism spectrum disorder at 24 months. Scans of the infants with autism showed changes in the brain’s white matter in areas that connect one region to another.

Kelly N. Botteron, MD, who is leading the effort at the Washington University study site, said in a press release, “As this study moves forward, we may want to scan babies at even younger ages so that we can try to see how early this pattern is emerging.”

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Botteron says the finding fits the hypothesis about autism that brain regions are disorganized. is, She explains, “…the way their neurons speak to each other clearly seems to be disrupted.”

The technology used to find the difference in the brain at 6 months that correlated with symptoms of autism by age 2 uses fractional anisotropy (FA), which measures how the brain is organized by tracking the movement of water molecules through brain tissue.

Children with autism had lower FA values at age 6, compared to those without the disorder. The changes occurred over time.

“We were astonished by the scope of the differences,” Botteron says. “We didn’t expect that almost every pathway we examined was going to show these differences. That was very striking.”

The finding comes from a $10 million Infant Brain Imaging Study Network initiative funded by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and supported by Autism Speaks.

The researchers hope to uncover genetic and biological factors that contribute to the changes in the brain’s white matter in 12 of 15 tracts. The result of the newest research shows brain changes happen as early as 6-months of age in infants who later develop symptoms of autism.

The American Journal of Psychiatry
“Differences in White Matter Fiber Tract Development Present From 6 to 24 Months in Infants With Autism”
Jason J. Wolff, Ph.D
February 17, 2012

Image credit: Wikimedia commons