New research into autism finds that indicators determining whether a person is apt to develop the disorder are present in the brain at as early as six months of age.
Part of the Infant Brain Imaging Study, a collaboration between researchers at the Montreal Neurological Institute and four clinical sites in the United States, the research used magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) to analyze connectivity between regions of the brain in 260 infants, both at six and 12 months of age, who had either low or high risk of developing autism spectrum disorder.
Autism, which causes people to have challenges in relation to social skills, speech and nonverbal communication, has been linked to a range of factors, some genetic and some environmental.
Scientists have learned that abnormalities in brain connectivity are apparent in people with autism, meaning that certain networks of the brain are less efficient in those with autism, particularly with regard to connections between the right prefrontal cortex (associated with personality, decision making and moderating social behaviour) and other regions of the brain.
And while previous research has identified these abnormalities in children aged 24 months, the new study shows that the connectivity problem can be found at even earlier stages of development. Researchers found inefficiencies in the brains of six-month- old infants who later would be diagnosed with autism and that the extent of these inefficiencies was correlated to the severity of autistic symptoms present at 24 months.
“The results indicate that there are differences in the brains of infants who go on to develop autism spectrum disorder even at six months of age, and that those early differences are found in areas involved in processing sensory inputs, not areas involved in higher cognitive functions,” says study lead author, John Lewis, researcher at the Montreal Neurological Institute and Hospital of McGill University and the Ludmer Centre for Bioinformatics and Mental Health, in a press release.
“We hope that these findings will prove useful in understanding the causal mechanisms in autism spectrum disorder, and in developing effective interventions.”
The researchers say that along with helping to rule out certain environmental factors as potential causes of autism spectrum disorder, identifying brain abnormalities at as early an age as six months will help in the early diagnosis of autism and, hence, with earlier intervention and treatment.
Studies are showing that early intervention, through behavioural therapy and medication, is beneficial to the development of children with autism.
“Early attention to improving the core behavioural symptoms of autism will give your child – and the rest of the family –several important benefits that you will not gain if you take a wait-and-see approach until your child enters school at age four or five,” say researchers Wendy L. Stone and Theresa Foy DiGeromino for the group Autism Speaks.
The prevalence of autism spectrum disorder in Canada has increased by over 100 per cent in the last ten years, with now one in 68 children being diagnosed with the disorder, making it the fastest-growing neurological disorder.