This article has been edited. The original version of the article referred to autism as a disease. For more information on why this matters, please refer to the NHS page on autism.
Researchers have scanned unborn fetuses to discern brain differences possibly caused by autism, giving the earliest diagnosis of the condition to date. If the Harvard Medical researchers are correct, their findings could enable the early diagnosis and treatment of infants with the condition, significantly improving the child’s chances of reconnecting with the world around them.
Autism spectrum disorder or ASD is a brain disorder affecting how children interact and communicate with those within their environment. Depending on the severity, these children can often shut down due to sensory overload to become cut off and isolated.
Autism is not a medical condition with treatments or a “cure”. But some people need support to help them with certain things. For many people diagnosed with autism, the best hope is cognitive therapy, where they may improve their communication skills. However, these treatments can fail with outcomes depending on the severity of the condition and the earliest possible diagnosis, which thus far is 18 months of age.
“Although a diagnosis received by 1 in 68 children in the United States, a cause for autism is still unknown. Both genetic and environmental factors during prenatal and postnatal development are believed to account for the emergence of ASD,” the team writes in their abstract for the American Association for Anatomy annual meeting, presenting their research.
Because of this, the team theorized that a highly accurate scanning system known as magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) might capture any structural anomalies in the brains of living human fetuses to diagnose this condition.
Their results from scans of unborn babies at around 25 weeks revealed staggering differences in a brain region known as the insular lobe between children who were later diagnosed with ASD and those deemed ‘neurotypical’ (who have a normal brain structure).
The region, which showed up as far larger in autistic children, is thought to play a role in perceptual awareness, social behavior, and decision-making – functions related to social intelligence and awareness.
“Earlier detection means better treatment. Our results suggest that an increased volume of the insular lobe may be a strong prenatal MRI biomarker that could predict the emergence of ASD later in life,” said Dr. Alpen Ortug, the first author of the study from Massachusetts General Hospital.
In the study, the scientists scanned the brains of thirty-nine fetuses – after they were born, they imaged their brains again. Nine of the children examined before birth were later diagnosed with ASD. At the same time, 20 of the 39 had typical brain structures, and the remaining ten were not diagnosed with autism but had other health conditions seen in the children with ASD.
The breakthrough also showed that the junction between the amygdala and hippocampal was more prominent in autistic participants than in children with the same health conditions but not ASD.
“Given that many genetic and environmental factors could affect the emergence of ASD starting in the fetal stages, it is ideal to identify the earliest signature of brain abnormalities in prospective autism patients,” says Ortug.
The authors concluded that their data proffers a potential prenatal imaging method to predict the emergence of autism in later life to enable the earliest diagnosis and treatment possible.