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Ultrasound Flags Autism Risk in Low Birth Weight Infants

February 28, 2013

New study reveals very early brain marker of autism risk; may lead to earlier detection and treatment

Researchers have used ultrasound to detect a brain abnormality that predicts a high risk that a low-birth-weight baby will go on to develop autism. If confirmed, the findings may represent another early signpost of autism. The hope is that such markers will make it possible to detect and intervene with therapies before a child shows obvious symptoms. (Also see “Discovery of Pre-symptom Marker of Autism.”)

Researchers at Michigan State University found that low-weight newborns were seven times more likely to be diagnosed with autism later in childhood if an ultrasound just after birth showed enlarged ventricles (brain cavities that hold spinal fluid). The study appears online this week in the Journal of Pediatrics.

The researchers looked at information on more than 1,100 low-birth-weight infants born in the 1980s. The babies had ultrasounds just after birth as part of a study looking for relationships between brain abnormalities in infancy and health disorders in later childhood. The children were screened for autism when they were 16 years old.

Ventricular enlargement is found more often in premature babies than in those born at full term, the researchers note. It may indicate loss of a type of brain tissue called white matter. In addition, prior studies have shown an increased rate of autism in low-birth-weight babies.

“Biological signs that enable earlier detection of autism are critical because early intervention improves outcomes,” comments Daniel Smith, Ph.D., Autism Speaks senior director for discovery neuroscience. However, ventricular enlargement in low-birth-weight infants is associated with many neurodevelopmental and psychiatric disorders, he adds. “If these findings can be shown to be specific to autism, then they may help improve the way we detect and diagnose the disorder.”

Autism Speaks continues to fund a broad range of studies on the neuroscience, or brain development, of autism. You can explore these and other studies supported by the Autism Speaks community using this website’s Grant Search.