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Autism spectrum disorder can usually be diagnosed by the time a child is 2 years old. Arief Juwono/Getty Images
  • About 1 in 44 children are diagnosed with autism by the time they are 8 years old.
  • Researchers say MRI scans can identify differences in the brains of fetuses that could be early indicators that a child will be diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder.
  • They say the scans can help diagnose autism earlier and allow parents to begin intervention programs for the children at a younger age.

Autism spectrum disorder is a neurodevelopmental condition that presents challenges for many children worldwide.

Now, a new study from Harvard Medical School in Boston may give some insight into the disorder before a child is born.

Alpen Ortug, PhD, a postdoctoral research fellow in radiology at Harvard Medical School, examined and analyzed fetal MRI brain scans taken at Boston Children’s Hospital. They found differences in brain structure in children who were later diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder (ASD).

“Autism is defined by social and other behaviors that aren’t measurable in infants, but research shows that infants who will go on to have autism already have different brains. What this study adds is that some of those brain changes may be starting well before birth,” said Carissa J. Cascio, PhD, an associate professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Vanderbilt University Medical Center in Tennessee.

The research team analyzed 39 MRI brain scans of fetuses around 25 weeks of gestation. Nine of the children were formally diagnosed with ASD later in life. Additionally, 10 children had other health conditions observed in children with ASD, although they were not formally diagnosed as having ASD.

“This is exciting because it gives us an idea of very early brain changes that may be present in people on the autism spectrum and localizes them to a brain region that is important for emotional and sensory functions, which we know are impacted by autism,” Cascio told Healthline.

The researchers discovered that the insular lobe of the brain was significantly larger in children who had ASD. The insular cortex is a region deep inside the brain responsible for motor control, sensory processing, and social behavior – cognitive functions these individuals sometimes need to manage.

“What is remarkable is that with this exploratory, unbiased approach, the insula was statically significantly larger in ASD subjects compared to all other control groups,” Ortug told Healthline.

The study was presented at a conference and has not been peer-reviewed or published yet.

Autism is a complex disorder that usually has impairment of social interactions, communication, and sometimes the presence of repetitive patterns of interest, behaviors, and activities, according to the Association for Science in Autism Treatment.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Autism and Developmental Disabilities Monitoring Network estimates that 1 in 44 children who are 8 years old have been identified with ASD.

ASD’s prevalence has seemingly grown over the years, with 1 in 88 people thought to have been on the spectrum in 2008. Experts do not believe that there is an actual increase in cases today but rather a growing awareness of autism and understanding of the diagnostic criteria.

Although the causes of ASD are currently unknown, it is believed that both genetic and environmental factors contribute to this diagnosis.

“At present, no single marker can be used as a test to predict non-genetic autism reliably in individual babies,” says Cascio.

ASD can many times be detected at 18 months or younger. By the age of 2, experienced professionals can reliably diagnose this condition. However, with this new compelling research, families may be able to anticipate ASD in their child sooner and provide early intervention and treatment for the best outcomes.

Although this new study is the first step, the research provides more insight into the early identifiers of ASD.

“Given that many genetic and environmental factors could affect the emergence of ASD starting in the fetal stages, it is ideal to identify the earliest signature of brain abnormalities in prospective autism patients,” Ortug says in a press release.

“We believe that, in the near future, these results may help us better understand the pathophysiology of brain development in ASD and become an early detection biomarker,” she added.

Diagnosing ASD as early as possible is important as early intervention and can provide better outcomes in individuals.

“If replicated, this finding could lead to a better understanding of the mechanisms involved and spark new ideas for intervention approaches,” Cascio said.

Rajiv Bahl, MD, MBA, MS, is an emergency medicine physician, board member of the Florida College of Emergency Physicians, and health writer. You can find him at RajivBahlMD.com.