How a brain scan could diagnose autism in newborns: Studying connections in the organ could help determine if a child has the disease, a study reveals
- Premature babies have excessive nerve cells in their brains
- Can affect neuronal communication and has been associated with autism
- Newborns may one day be examined for signs showing that they could develop the disorder
Scientists hope that a simple MRI exam could one day be enough to diagnose an autistic baby.
One study found that premature babies had an excessive number of nerve cells and other structures in their cerebral cortex – the region of the brain that governs mental functioning – and that these could be detected by scanning.
Excessive numbers of neurons in the brain can affect communication between nerve cells, which has been associated with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD).
Full-term babies are thought to have "pruned" these neurons during their mother's third trimester.
This may explain why autism is more common among young people born too early.
The researchers hope that developing a map of these brain regions will allow them to one day analyze the brain of a newborn looking for signs indicating that it might develop autism.
Scientists hope to create a brain map allowing them to diagnose autism in the newborn (stock)
The research was conducted by the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia and directed by Dr. Hao Huang, a researcher in the Department of Radiology.
"We used advanced methods to observe the microstructure throughout the brain during a critical period of maturation," said Dr. Huang.
"In addition to characterizing typical brain development, these measures offer the potential to detect autistic spectrum disorder biomarkers at an age for early diagnosis and possibly early intervention."
Autism is a lifelong condition that affects the way a person communicates and interacts with others.
According to NHS statistics, this affects to some extent about one in 100 people in the UK.
And in the United States, one in 59 children is diagnosed with some form of ASD, according to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention.
Babies born before 37 weeks are more likely to show signs of ASD, reports the March of Dimes charity.
SIGNS AND SYMPTOMS OF AUTISM
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, people with autism have problems with social, emotional and communication skills that usually develop before the age of three and last a lifetime.
Specific signs of autism include:
- Reactions to smell, taste, appearance, sensation or sound are unusual
- Difficulty of adapting to routine changes
- Unable to repeat or echo what they are told
- Difficulty expressing desires using words or movements
- Unable to discuss their own feelings or those of others
- Difficulty with acts of affection like a hug
- Prefer to be alone and avoid eye contact
- Difficulty related to others
- Can not point to objects or look at objects when others point to them
The researchers sought to determine whether abnormal brain connections, similar to those seen in autism patients, could be detected in babies.
They analyzed 76 newborns, some of whom were born as early as 31 weeks old, while others had reached their term.
With the help of MRI, scientists measured the cerebral cortex of babies.
The cerebral cortex is the outer surface of the brain's hemispheres and is composed of about 20 billion nerve cells.
The analyzes measured the diffusion of water into the brain of the newborns, indicating the structure and development of the vital organ.
Previous studies relied on tissue samples taken from deceased infants, which gave only an indication of brain development in that particular region.
In contrast, MRI scans cover the entire cerebral cortex.
The diffusion of water detects the random movement of H2O molecules, which is influenced by the presence of nerve cells and other structures in the brain.
If a baby does not "trim" his brain enough in the uterus, excess neurons may remain.
The findings – published in the journal PNAS – revealed a higher number of abnormalities in the brains of premature babies.
By detecting these excessive nerve cells in the premies, researchers believe they can create a map that predicts autism in newborns.
While promising, the researchers point out that new studies are needed to determine if a diagnosis of developmental disability is diagnosed in these babies.
They therefore provide for a follow-up study to determine if one of the newborns is autistic at the age of two years.
Scientists also hope to develop a computer brain model that will "age" to show the evolution of the organ structure over time and its possible link with autism.