This discovery could help doctors detect autism earlier

The brains of infants who develop the disorder grow too fast, researchers say. The finding may allow for treatments that limit autism's effects.

Alia Aamar soothes her 10-month-old daughter, Aneesa, before researchers scan her brain in Joseph Piven’s lab at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Aneesa has an older brother with autism, so she has a greater likelihood of developing it. By regularly scanning the brains of babies who might develop autism, the researchers hope to pinpoint brain changes that could be used to help make an early diagnosis.

For parents who learn their child has autism, the diagnosis often comes as a shock: How could their baby have gone from appearing healthy to having an incurable disorder? Since autism was first identified in the 1940s, researchers have struggled to explain it. The cause remains a mystery, but scientists are beginning to learn what happens in the brains of these children.

Studies indicate that it may be possible to detect signs of autism at as early as three months of age, long before the disorder manifests itself. Early detection would allow for interventions that might prevent or mitigate the impairments associated with autism.

“What we are learning is that autism is a trait, and whether or not that trait becomes a disability depends on early experiences,” says Ami Klin, a psychologist at Emory University. That raises the possibility, he adds, “that autism as a profound disability is not inevitable.”

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