Autism Signs Appear In Baby's Brains As Early As 6 Months

The early signs of autism are visible in the brains of 6-month-old infants, a new study finds, suggesting that future treatments could be given at this time, to lessen the impact of the disorder on children.

Researchers looked at how the brain develops in early life, and found that tracts of white matter that connect different regions of the brain didn't form as quickly in children who later developed autism, compared with kids who didn't develop the disorder.

"The way the wiring was changing was dampened" in the children with autism, said study researcher Jason Wolff, who studies developmental disabilities at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. "It was a more blunted change over time, in how the brain was being wired."

In contrast, in the brains of infants who did not later develop autism, white matter tracts were swiftly forming, Wolff said. "Their brains were organizing themselves in a pretty rapid fashion."

The findings suggest that during a child's first year, "there is a potential to intervene, to disrupt autism before it becomes entrenched," Wolff said. "There are a lot of possibilities to improve outcomes for these children."

The study was published Friday in the American Journal of Psychiatry.

The first year of life is an important time in brain development, and is also when the first symptoms of autism start to appear, Wolff said.

In the study, the researchers looked at the brains of 92 infants, when they were 6 months, 1 year and 2 years old. All of the children had a sibling with autism ; research shows such children have a higher risk of developing the disorder themselves.

The researchers used a brain scan called diffusion tensor imaging, a type of MRI scan which allowed them to see changes in the brain's organization over time.

When the kids were 2 years old, 28 had developed autism, while 64 had not. The researchers looked back at the early brain scans, to see if there were differences between the groups.

"We looked at pathways that connect brain regions to each other, and 12 out of 15 were different in kids with autism," Wolff said.

Previous studies had found differences in brain volume in infants of this age, and other researchers had looked at white matter tracts in older children with autism, and adults, but the structures had not been examined before in infants so young, Wolff said.

The fact that so many of the tracts were affected shows that autism is a "whole-brain phenomenon," Wolff said. "There are widespread differences" in the brains of people with the disorder, he said.

Twins with autism: Parents wonder, did it have to happen?

As to what might be causing these brain differences, it's too early to say, Wolff said. But the findings are consistent with what researchers suspect about what triggers autism's development, he said, "there's a complex interaction between genes, and a child's experiences with the world."

And while the brain scans of the two groups of children certainly revealed their differences, those scans are not at the point where they could be used to diagnose the disorder in a 6-month-old, Wolff emphasized.

But the findings help researchers better understand how the disorder develops.

"It was really important to see that this was an evolving process," Wolff said. Kids don't just suddenly become autistic, "getting there is a journey," he said.

The researchers will continue to follow some of the children in the study until they are 3 years old, and will continue to enroll more children in the study, Wolff said.

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  • by LaShama on Feb 18, 2012 at 12:34 PM
    You people are nuts. Jumping on someone for having an opinion of her own. I bet you people are the ones that say everyone is equal in this town to? Betty you go girl don't let these idiots get to you. This is America and it is still free speech last I knew. These idiots will jump on anyone that doesn’t agree with their thinking. YOU GO GIRL. I don’t know anyone with an autism child but I would bet that the vaccines would have some harm to children. Look at bug spray that can kill you.
    • reply
      by autism mom on Feb 18, 2012 at 05:33 PM in reply to LaShama
      But aren't we entitled to have opinions of our own as well? And maybe you're more to blame for "jumping on" people since you are the first to call the commentors on this article "idiots."
  • by Vaccines are not the problem on Feb 18, 2012 at 12:28 PM
    It's a chromosomal issue (bad genetics). The parent DNA gave their child autism not the vaccine to keep him/her healthy
    • reply
      by sue on Feb 18, 2012 at 12:58 PM in reply to Vaccines are not the problem
      That is your opinion. And you can have that opinion. But don't try and make it the parents’ fault. If your child died of drugs would that be your fault? We all have our options. And you can to.
  • by phil on Feb 18, 2012 at 11:55 AM
    Sorry but from what I see is if you make the kid mind it won't act up. That is what your hand is for. Nothing more upsetting then to be at a store and here a kid screaming. When you say something the parents say, well he is autistic. Give me a break!!!!!!!! Evey year they come up with some reason not to make kids mind, this is just one more.
  • by mom on Feb 18, 2012 at 06:46 AM
    I agree. Please change the picture.
  • by Melissa on Feb 18, 2012 at 05:18 AM
    Please change the picture associated with this story. We have plenty of evidence that vaccines are not linked to autism. This picture appears to be a child receiving a vaccine.
    • reply
      by betty on Feb 18, 2012 at 06:43 AM in reply to Melissa
      I say keep the picture up. I have a grandchild with autism and I DO believe vaccines are linked to autism. It is very hard with a child of autism and if you don't deal with it on a daily bases you think, “oh well it can't be that bad”. Well let me tell you, IT IS VERY HARD for parents with an autism child. Today they are giving out way to many vaccines. Look back in history and you will see hardly any autism children and there were a lot less vaccines given. God gave us every thing our bodies need to take care of problems. The vaccines the scientist gave us. Go figure.
      • reply
        by Facts on Feb 18, 2012 at 07:46 AM in reply to betty
        You may believe it, but there are NO links to vaccines and autism. There has been research however that Obesity/Being overweight in parents/grandparents has been linked to autism in their children....People not used to be obese as they are now. Don't blame the doctors, scientists, and researchers that are giving out these vaccines and are trying to help children. They are doing everything they can at the moment to help your grandchild out. Blame fast-food shug and all the hazardous chemicals they put in the fast-food. God also invented man and gave him the power to invent vaccines.
      • reply
        by mom on Feb 18, 2012 at 08:43 AM in reply to betty
        I am a parent of a child with autism, and it is very hard and many people don't understand. I agree with you on those points. However, science is science, and there is plenty of evidence that vaccines are NOT the cause. The scientists and others need to focus on finding the real cause. And, God bless you Betty for being a supportive and involved grandparent. I wish I were so lucky to have that help.
        • reply
          by betty on Feb 18, 2012 at 11:48 AM in reply to mom
          You all can believe what you want. I still think vaccines are being given out way to much. My grand baby was born normal then after the first year (tons of vaccines later) she developed this terrible thing called autism. As I said, I still believe there is a connection. Years ago they said there wasn't any connection in cigarettes and lung cancer. Had tons of people saying, “oh no there isn’t any connection to cigarettes, so I’m going to keep right on smoking until they can prove it to me”. That was the attitude from most people. Well after years & years they finally convince some, I say some because there is still people out there that don’t believe the connection between lung cancer & smoking. As for me, I still think there is a connection with vaccines & autism. And if it upsets some of you, OH WELL. That is life.
      • reply
        by autism mom on Feb 18, 2012 at 09:40 AM in reply to betty
        Do your research, Betty. You better believe I have, as the mother of a 4 year old (with severe autism) and a toddler. I agree 100% that autism is tough to deal with on a daily basis. However, there is no proven link between autism and vaccines. Maybe you should shift your time and attention to advocating for your grandchild and others with autism rather than blaming scientists.
      • reply
        by Anonymous on Feb 18, 2012 at 11:38 AM in reply to betty
        What you "believe" about it doesn't matter as it relates to proven facts and honest reporting. There is no justification for a story photo to implicate something that is debated and has nothing to do with the actual information in this story. The story is not about vaccines. I agree, it was a completely inappropriate choice by WITN and it looks like an intent to incite inflammatory discussion. I would also like to see it changed.
      • reply
        by sue on Feb 18, 2012 at 12:11 PM in reply to betty
        I agree with you Betty. My neighbor has a son that has autism. His whole family believes it was from all the shots he had when he was a baby. I totally agree. Time may tell but I'd say it is the vaccines that the kids are getting. By the way, Paul was born normal to. One of you made a comment about fast foods being linked to autism??? REALLY, it seems everyone is blaming fast food for everything that goes wrong lately. Get a grip man.

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