Support Provided ByLearn More
Body + BrainBody & Brain

Early Brain Scans Could Predict Likelihood of Autism Diagnosis

ByWill SullivanNOVA NextNOVA Next

Receive emails about upcoming NOVA programs and related content, as well as featured reporting about current events through a science lens.

Doctors typically diagnose Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) at around age four by evaluating behaviors that start to develop at age two. But infants at high risk of autism can now get a brain scan to accurately predict the likelihood of diagnosis, according to a new study .

Researchers from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill examined functioning magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) brain scans and behavioral tendencies of 59 six-month-olds who had older siblings on the autism spectrum.

Support Provided ByLearn More

They collected similar information when the children were two, then fed all of this material into a machine-learning algorithm that looked for correlations between the scanned data and behavioral data. The computer used the brain scans to predict whether the child would later be diagnosed with autism. It caught 9 of the 11 cases and produced no false positives (a result that indicates that a condition is present when, in fact, it is not).

autism-brain-scans
Schematics representing brain scan signatures that predicted later autism diagnosis in infants.

However, there is still a dilemma of whether

early behavioral intervention for those diagnosed with ASD is ethical. Here’s Anil Ananthaswamy, reporting for New Scientist:

Many people consider autism to be a fundamental part of their personality, and although some autistic people have substantial difficulty communicating or forming relationships, some people with autism value traits such as abilities to concentrate, pay attention to detail or see things from a novel perspective.

Behavioral therapy might be less controversial if future research were to link brain functioning to specific behaviors. This would allow for treatment targeted at detrimental behaviors and in general would improve the treatment’s efficacy. Further research, beyond replicating the original results, will need to include infants at low risk of developing autism, allowing doctors to use the test on any infant—not just those with autistic siblings.

Other desired improvements include lowering the cost of diagnostic tests. Here’s Nicholette Zeliadt, reporting for Scientific American:

The type of brain scan the researchers used costs several thousand dollars, but more noninvasive and affordable methods, such as electroencephalography or near-infrared spectroscopy, might one day be used in clinics.

For decades, scientists have been looking for early signs of neural or behavioral developments associated with autism. An earlier diagnosis would allow doctors to educate parents and begin behavioral therapy before symptoms manifest.

Photo credit: R.W. Emerson et al., Science Translational Medicine (2017)