Ultrasound can reveal brain abnormalities in babies at birth that appear to provide the earliest indication they are more likely to develop autism later in childhood, new research shows.
The study, led by Michigan State University, found that low-birth-weight newborns were seven times more likely to be diagnosed with autism later in life if an ultrasound taken just after birth showed they had enlarged ventricles — cavities in the brain that store spinal fluid.
The findings, published in the Journal of Pediatrics, suggest ultrasound could flag an early marker for the puzzling disorder and help at-risk kids receive treatment and training programs even before the classic symptoms of the condition appear.
"For many years there's been a lot of controversy about whether vaccinations or environmental factors influence the development of autism, and there's always the question of at what age a child begins to develop the disorder," said lead researcher Tammy Movsas, a clinical assistant professor of pediatrics at MSU and medical director of the Midland County Department of Public Health.
"What this study shows us is that an ultrasound scan within the first few days of life may already be able to detect brain abnormalities that indicate a higher risk of developing autism."
For the study, Movsas and colleagues analyzed data from 1,105 low-birth-weight infants born in the mid-1980s. All had cranial ultrasounds just after birth so the researchers could look for links between brain abnormalities in infancy and health disorders later in life. The children were screened for autism when they were 16 and 21 years old, which turned up 14 positive diagnoses.
The results showed ventricular enlargement was more common in those later diagnosed with autism. The condition is more common in premature babies and may indicate loss of a type of brain tissue called white matter.
"This study suggests further research is needed to better understand what it is about loss of white matter that interferes with the neurological processes that determine autism," said co-author Nigel Paneth, an MSU epidemiologist who helped organize the cohort. "This is an important clue to the underlying brain issues in autism."
The study was funded by a grant from the National Institutes of Health.
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