Doctors May Be Able to Predict Autism Risk Much Earlier

About one in 68 children born in the U.S. are diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder, the developmental disorder that affects a number of brain functions—most notably children’s ability to socialize and communicate. Because the first signs of autism aren’t obvious until children start talking and interacting with others, doctors can’t definitively diagnose the condition until babies are about two years old, when language and social skills start to emerge.

Experts say that may be too late in terms of treating or minimizing the effects of autism, since whatever brain changes responsible for them have already taken place. However, a new report in the journal Nature may give worried parents new hope.

Heather Cody Hazlett, a psychologist at the Carolina Institute of Developmental Disabilities at the University of North Carolina, and her colleagues used brain scans to come up with a formula for predicting which babies, from as young as six months old, might be at higher risk of developing autism. The team focused their work on babies with older siblings diagnosed with autism; these brothers and sisters have a 20% higher risk of also developing autism, compared to newborns without affected siblings. Hazlett took MRI scans of the babies at six months, 12 months and 24 months to track any changes. They then matched the scans with autism diagnoses when the infants were two years old.

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