Infant brains show autism early

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. – Early diagnosis is essential when it comes to autism. 

Researchers say studying babies' brains may be a critical part of unlocking some of the mystery behind the condition. It could help researchers determine which children may go on to develop autism, and ultimately lead to better outcomes. 

Katharine Kollins had no idea her first-born child, Grayson, had autism until he was 2-years-old. 

"There were definitely things that were not typical, but little things," she said. 

When Grayson stopped speaking after his little sister Evelyn was born, they got the diagnosis. 

"It doesn't feel like your world anymore, and everything is kind of crashing," Kollins said. 

One in 68 children have an autism spectrum disorder, said Heather Cody Hazlett, of the Department of Psychiatry at the Carolina Institute for Developmental Disabilities.

Hazlett said the challenge is early diagnosis because certain behaviors may not show up until later. So, her research team focused on babies' brains.

"Looking at very, very young children, so infants that are at high risk for autism," Hazlett said.

The 10-year study at the University of North Carolina looked at the MRI brain scans of more than 500 infants. The study found that the brains of babies who later went on to develop autism were much bigger in size.

"By the time they're two, or three, their brain volume is much greater than children that are just typically developing," Hazlett said.

She said the study was 80 percent accurate in identifying which children were going to end up on the spectrum.

"So that kids can enter into treatment, and get interventions just as quickly, and as early as possible," Hazlett said. 

Kollins enrolled her daughter in the study, but she didn't develop autism. She wishes they had known earlier about the autism diagnosis with Grayson.

"We would have resources available to us immediately," Kollins said.

UNC is planning another study to replicate their findings. 

The National Institutes of Health is also funding another study to follow the babies into school age. 

For more information, please visit ibisnetwork.com or unc.edu.