Neuroimaging can help detect autism in babies

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Neuroimaging tests on 6-month-old babies can help detect autistic spectrum disorders (ASDs), according to a study published today in the journal Science Translational Medicine.

The research, conducted by experts at the University of North Carolina and the University of Washington School of Medicine in St. Louis, Missouri, focused on brain examination of 59 children at high risk for autism.

Using the functional magnetic resonance imaging (MRF) technique, scientists collected data on 26,335 pairs of functional connections between 230 different brain regions while babies slept.

Of these children, eleven were diagnosed with autism at 24 months of age, allowing researchers to apply automatic learning algorithms to analyze specific brain patterns, which correctly predicted 9 of these diagnoses without false positives.

Functional neuroimaging allows the quantification of activation, metabolism and perfusion (feeding cells with oxygen and nutrients) in the different brain areas, as well as the evaluation of the dynamics of the different neurotransmitters and the regional accumulation of several proteins.

It is estimated that one in 68 children worldwide is affected by ASD, which includes a large group of neurodevelopmental disorders that often cause continuous communication problems, repetitive behaviors and other symptoms that affect social capacity.

The scientists said more research is needed to determine whether it applies to babies without a high genetic risk, but these findings may be a first step toward early detection of autism.

This early detection, along with behavioral interventions, could significantly improve the quality of life of people with ASD, although all behavioral symptoms typically do not appear until the children are two years old or older.

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