[caption id="attachment_1110" align="alignleft" width="225" caption="Image courtesy of Salvatore Vuono"][/caption] A while ago, I wrote about research being conducted at the University of London in regards to early autism diagnosis. The report that its researchers published in January’s edition of Current Biology is one of the first to examine the relationship of gaze shifts in young babies and an autism diagnosis later in childhood (generally around 24-36 months). While the work done in London shed some important light on early signs for parents and caregivers, another study from the University of North Carolina’s Carolina Institute for Developmental Disabilities (CIDD) has made even more progress on the medical diagnostic front, contending that shifts in brain imaging found in at-risk infants as early as six months may crack open ASD diagnosis on a whole new scale. Focus on those “at risk” Like the London study, researchers as UNC focused their work on children considered “at risk” for developing ASD because of an older sibling with that diagnosis. By looking specifically at children with a familial tie to the disorder, researchers felt that they would have a larger population of ASD diagnoses to deal with when their study concluded. Over the course of two years, the researchers in the study looked at the fiber tract development in the brains of the infants in the group through diffusion tensor imaging, a type of MRI. The first images were taken at 6 months. Then, more images were taken at either 12 or 24 months with an associated behavioral assessment at 24 months as well. In total, of the 92 infants that entered the study, 28 were eventually diagnosed with ASD, a total of 30% of the original sample. Researchers compared the fiber tract images of those 28 with the other 64 children in the group and found some significant deviations in 12 of the 15 tracts. Finding a “biomarker for risk” The results of this study are still preliminary, but the ultimate goal, as its author Jason J. Wolff explained was to, “[develop] a biomarker for risk in advance of our current ability to diagnose autism.” If researchers can successfully identify such a biomarker and therefore conclude that the onset of autism is gradual over the first few years of life, they can subsequently try to halt the progression of the disorder with what Wolff labels “targeted intervention.” Can Autism Be Stopped? The results of these two studies have the special needs and medical community’s attention for a reason. Though there is little still known about the actual causes of ASD in first-born children (i.e. those not yet designated “at risk”) any strides we can make in getting a diagnosis earlier can have huge implications in the ultimate therapies we can provide and perhaps impact the trajectory of the disorder. In addition, the conclusions that studies such as the one at UNC have reached, that autism is a “whole brain phenomenon,” begin to unlock the mystery of that last of medical frontiers: our minds.
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