New scans could help catch autism earlier

June 4, 2012 3:06:47 PM PDT
New statistics show that autism affects one in 88 children in the United States.

Catching it early is key in treating the problem. Now, special imaging may help detect autism sooner than ever before.

Gracie Whitaker goes everywhere her big brother Seth goes. But her parents hope Gracie doesn't follow in Seth's footsteps when it comes to one thing: Seth has autism.

"I was concerned about it," dad Tony Whitaker said.

Siblings have a one in five chance of developing autism, so Gracie was enrolled in a one-of-a-kind study.

Researchers at the University of North Carolina used a special kind of MRI imaging called diffusion tensor imaging to look at 15 brain connections of babies who had a sibling with autism.

They found significant differences in 12 of the 15 connections in those who developed autism. Kids without the disorder have stronger connections, while those with a weaker connection are more likely to be austistic.

"The children who went on to have autism, we can see differences as early as six months," Dr. Jason Wolff said. "And that over time, their brains changed less."

Right now, it's almost impossible to diagnose autism at six months. The scans could offer a way to catch it much earlier.

"This is really before we can pick up any differences behaviorally," Dr. Wolff said. "If we could go earlier and earlier in our interventions, we could prevent autism from fully manifesting."

Gracie seems to be developing normally, which is a relief to her parents, who say their little girl is a big part of helping Seth deal with his disorder.

"We can't imagine where Seth would be if it wasn't for Gracie," mom Sally Whitaker said.

Dr. Wolff says the imaging could one day be used with behavioral exams, which are the current standard, to better diagnose autism. The hope is to catch it before signs start to show. A recent study published in pediatrics found when children as young as 18 months underwent therapy for autism, their IQ improved by 14 points compared to other kids with autism.

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