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Highlights from the Baby Sibs Research Consortium Meeting

Posted by Lauren Elder, PhD, Autism Speaks assistant director of dissemination science.

Last week, I attended my first meeting of Autism Speaks Baby Siblings Research Consortium (BSRC), held this year in Seattle. I was so impressed by the dedication of the scientists who attended. Many remarked on how rare it was to have the opportunity for a focused discussion on the state of the science on early autism and how this helped advance research on high risk siblings of children affected by autism.

Discussion also centered on the BSRC’s centralized database, funded by Autism Speaks. This has become the largest collection of data on high-risk families in the world. Importantly, by pulling together information on large groups of children, it is allowing researchers to tackle questions that were previously out of reach.

This year’s meeting focused on signs of autism in infancy - before 12 months of age. Several researchers presented data on areas like social attention and motor behavior in the first year of life. Several groups within the BSRC are focusing efforts on observable motor symptoms that can help pediatricians and family doctors identify signs of autism earlier than the traditional 18- to 23-month checkup. 

Never before have we had so much information about autism indicators in the first year. Beyond its importance to early screening and intervention, this information is exciting because it’s getting us closer to determining causes of autism.

Many of the presentations at the meeting concerned still-to-be published research. So we should be seeing some very exciting publications in the months ahead.

Some of these projects include a study suggesting that infants who demonstrate infant head lag are at higher risk for developing autism. Another, recently published BSRC study identified differences in early nonverbal cues that likewise indicate increased for developing autism. Yet another study looked at tell-tale differences in infant brain activity.

The BSRC is helping the field of autism research develop a clearer picture of how autism develops over the first year of life. Some of the very early signs, like differences in motor development and joint attention, can be assessed behaviorally. Others can be seen by using techniques such as electroencephalography (EEG), a noninvasive method for monitoring brain activity.

Within the BSRC, several smaller groups are focusing on particular interests. This year’s meeting brought interest in forming a focus group on “resiliency.” This group wants to study infants who are at genetic risk or show early signs of autism, but do not go on to have a diagnosis.  This can help us understand protective factors that can change a child’s “trajectory” toward autism or help promote best outcomes for those who do develop autism. Stay tuned for future research in this area.

This year was the first time early-career investigators had a separate networking meeting. This enthusiastic group was so excited to participate in the meeting. They discussed how to best contribute to autism science and ensure that their work delivers direct benefits to families. This next generation of scientists has amazing contributions to make. (Read about the work of one young scientist, Lisa Ibanez, here.)

Everyone involved judged the meeting to be a success, full of new ideas and exciting progress reports.  I’m already looking forward to next year!

Read more about Autism Speaks Baby Siblings Research Consortium here.