Autism may soon be diagnosed and prevented earlier with procedures that use a new map of newborn babies’ brain development.
A study funded by the National Institutes of Health found a new way to use noninvasive magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scans to create a map of a baby’s brain during the third trimester of pregnancy, EurekAlert reported Monday.
Researchers said that the process takes only 20 minutes and could help detect neurological disorders at a young age, particularly autism spectrum disorders (ASDs).
“We used cutting-edge methods to see microstructure throughout the brain during a critical period of maturation,” said Hao Huang, one of the researchers from the Department of Radiology at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia. “These measurements offer the potential to detect biomarkers of autism spectrum disorder at an age that could allow early diagnosis and possibly early intervention,” he added.
For the study, published in PNAS, Huang and his team analyzed 76 preterm and term newborns 31 to 42 postmenstrual weeks in age.
They used MRIs to analyze the newborns’ entire cerebral cortex and provided two measurements focusing on the brain’s microstructural organization and complexity.
Such measurements allowed the team to detect unusual interconnections in the brain indicating autism. Researchers said the findings could offer an imaging biomarker of ASD in newborns. However, Huang noted that further studies are required to confirm if their approach can reliably predict ASD risk.
The researchers plan to conduct a follow-up study to see whether a child will have ASD symptoms at age 2. They also aim to create a “Brain Chart” that will provide a baseline standard for typical measurements of brain development, which will support pediatricians’ growth chart that incorporates standard measures of child height and weight.
Currently, there is no medical test, such as blood test, to diagnose ASD, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Doctors use developmental screening and comprehensive diagnostic evaluation to determine the disorder.
The two available procedures rely only on the child’s behavior and development, which commonly take up to 18 months after the child’s birth. However, doctors consider an ASD diagnosis reliable when done with babies at the age of 2.