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Your Dollars@Work: Insights into Early Brain Development in Autism

Researchers funded by Autism Speaks share findings, seek participants for study of infants in families affected by autism

Guest post by Chad Chappell, research project coordinator for the Infant Brain Imaging Study (IBIS), at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. 

I’m so glad for this opportunity to tell you about our research and invite families in the autism community to participate in our study, which receives support from Autism Speaks.

Our Infant Brain Imaging Study (IBIS) focuses on the infant siblings of children diagnosed with autism.  The aim of this research project is to examine early brain and behavior development from 3 to 36 months of age with brain imaging and behavior assessments.

We’re part of the Autism Speaks Baby Siblings Research Consortium (BSRC). In addition, an Autism Speaks grant enables us to partner with another research group that is examining the interactions of genetic and environmental factors in the early development of autism. That study is the Early Autism Risk Longitudinal Investigation (EARLI).

Together we’re learning more about brain changes that occur prior to the appearance of the defining features of autism.  (Read about our early research findings here.)

Why study baby sibs?
As many readers of this blog may know, autism tends to run in families. BSRC research suggests that around 1 in 5 children who have older siblings with autism will themselves develop autism spectrum disorder.

So studying infants with a high family risk for autism – from soon after birth until the diagnosis is apparent and beyond – is giving us important new insights into a cascade of changing brain-behavior relationships during the early development of autism.  

The primary aim of IBIS is to look at changes in the infant brain using noninvasive MRI scans. In particular, we’re looking at brain development during the first two years when autism’s defining behaviors unfold.

In a landmark 2012 report, for example, the IBIS team reported on clear differences throughout the brain, as early as 6 months of age, between infants who would go on to develop autism or develop typically. The findings provided strong evidence that brain changes precede the appearance of the behaviors we associate with autism. What’s more, brain development continued to unfold differently in the infants who would develop autism right up to their 24-month evaluation.

In another study, we found differences in ritualistic-repetitive behaviors present by 12 months of age. This is earlier than had been thought. So the findings encourage greater attention, in general, to such behaviors in toddlers at risk for autism. However, some infants who never develop autism also have early repetitive behaviors. So we can’t use them, by themselves, to predict autism on an individual level. 

In addition to deepening our understanding of autism, these studies - like those of other "baby sib" researchers - promise to advance early diagnosis and early intervention in ways that we hope will improve outcomes for many children.

More families needed
The more families we can study, the more reliable our findings will become. More than 600 families have already participated in IBIS. We’re extremely grateful for their contributions. Yet we need still more families.

Specifically, we’re recruiting families who have one or more children diagnosed with autism and a baby sib age 6 months or younger. This includes families that are expecting a child in the coming months.

We have four study sites where we see families. They are the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, the University of Washington in Seattle and Washington University in St. Louis.  We cover travel and other study-related costs and provide compensation for participation. Participating infants receive MRI brain scans, while sleeping, at several points during the study. In addition, we monitor their behavioral development with a serious of assessments. These will be shared with the parents in a behavioral report at each visit.

For more details, please visit Thanks and best wishes to the Autism Speaks community from all of us in the IBIS network.

Editor's note: Want to read more about the IBIS research group? Also see "Hunting for Autism's Earliest Clues," a feature story by Ariel Bleicher.


Explore all the research that Autism Speaks is funding using this website’s grant search.
These projects are made possible by the passion and generosity of our families, donors and volunteers.

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The Autism Speaks blog features opinions from people throughout the autism community. Each blog represents the point of view of the author and does not necessarily reflect Autism Speaks' beliefs or point of view.