The brains of children at risk of developing autism display hallmark symptoms that are detectable by brain scans as early as 6 months of age, new research shows.
The study, published in the American Journal of Psychiatry, found the brains of at-risk infants differ in significant ways from normal children and those abnormal developments can be seen long before autism is typically diagnosed -- around the age of 2 or 3 years.
The research opens the door to earlier diagnosis of the condition, which can improve treatment. Studies have shown early intervention can significantly improve symptoms of autism, including problems with communication, social interaction and behavior.
"For the first time, we have an encouraging finding that enables the possibility of developing autism risk biomarkers prior to the appearance of symptoms, and in advance of our current ability to diagnose autism," said co-investigator Dr. Alan Evans of the Montreal Neurological Institute and Hospital.
"Infancy is a time when the brain is being organized and connections are developing rapidly," Evans added. "Our international research team was able to detect differences in the wiring by 6 months of age in those children who went on to develop autism.”
The study involved tracking 92 infants, considered at high-risk for autism, who had a special type of MRI scan at 6 months and a behavioral assessment at 24 months.
About 30 percent of infants who were diagnosed with autism at age 2 had distinct brain features detected by MRI at 6 months.
The study was funded, in part, by the National Institutes of Health.