New UMN research shows new ways to detect autism in babies

A 10-year study published last week was co-authored by two University professors and found that brain scans can detect autism earlier.

The current layout of clinics within the Phillips-Wangensteen Building is not conducive for the workflow of physicians, residents and nurses. The University of Minnesota Medical School, the University of Minnesota Physicians and Fairview will partner to fund a new site.

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The current layout of clinics within the Phillips-Wangensteen Building is not conducive for the workflow of physicians, residents and nurses. The University of Minnesota Medical School, the University of Minnesota Physicians and Fairview will partner to fund a new site.

Olivia Johnson

University of Minnesota researchers are using brain scans to learn about how autism spectrum disorder develops in infancy.

A 10-year study published Feb. 16 reveals more about what happens in a child’s brain before autism fully develops. Researchers analyzed infants using MRI scans to map their brain development over two years and found that autism develops between 6to 12 months.

After 12 months of age, clear behavioral risk markers can be detected.

Jason Wolff, assistant University educational psychology professor and co-author of the study, said it shows how babies developing autism display hyper expansion of brain surface area at a high rate between six and 12 months old.

The findings help detect autism and could point to specific genes in babies that could cause the disorder, Wolff said.

“What was surprising was how strongly predictive this could be,” he said. “We didn’t know what we’d get … but we were very pleased.”

Jed Elison, assistant professor in the University’s Institute of Child Development and co-author, said this study is different from others because it analyzed children who hadn’t yet developed autism.

Elison said the team focused on analyzing children whose siblings had the disorder. Siblings are at a higher risk of developing autism because it has a familial inheritance pattern and strong genetic components, he said.

Elison said one major finding was that the researchers could characterize the timing of brain overgrowth in children who eventually develop autism. By 24 months, their brain size is much bigger than those who are not autistic.

The second finding, Elison said, showed how brain imaging data and a certain algorithm allowed researchers to predict — at six to 12 months — who will receive a diagnosis.

The algorithm was accurate over 80 percent of the time.

“That’s a big finding because the implications are that … we might be able to identify children who are at the greatest risk for developing autism and develop some type of preventive interventions,” Elison said.

Wolff, who used to work with people with autism, said the job was rewarding and frustrating.

“We didn’t know how to help certain individuals,” he said. “There are limits to what’s out there.”

Because of these frustrations, he decided to research where the disorder first develops — in babies.

“At some point, a baby goes from not having overt signs of autism to having them,” Wolff said.

Wolff said since infant brains are different from fully developed brains, the team used new technology and baby brain experts to achieve their findings.

Wolff said the findings have potential to develop ways of detecting autism earlier and preventing it.

Barbara Luskin, a psychologist for the Autism Society of Minnesota, said the study is interesting from a scientific position but is a long way from practical application.

Luskin said brain scans and MRIs are not widely used on infants to look for autism development.

“Even now, though we can reliably diagnose at 18 months, the average age of diagnosis is five years,” Luskin said. “We’re already not doing what we know how to do.”

She said the study is a step in learning the differences in the brains of people with autism and, ideally, would help people understand how they learn and perceive the world.

“The more we understand how people are different, the more we give them the tools to achieve their own goals,” Luskin said.