For many years medical providers have primarily relied on analyses of a child’s behavior in order to diagnose autism. While the behavioral differences between a child with autism and a neurotypical child are sufficient to provide a diagnosis, it can be a lengthy process. At a young age, behavioral differences that indicate autism may not be present or severe enough to clue medical providers in to what’s going on. Because early diagnosis and treatment is linked so strongly to long-term success, researchers and doctors are looking for new ways to diagnose autism accurately at an earlier age. Thanks to ongoing developments in magnetic resonance imaging technology (MRIs), care providers are learning more and more about the differences in a brain with autism and a neurotypical child’s brain even at an early age.
Doctors have been tracking the development of babies and even fetuses’ brains for quite some time using ultrasounds. While these ultrasounds can reveal information about abnormal developments in a child’s skull, especially with regard to the skull’s structure, the overall picture is relatively crude and difficult to interpret. On the other hand, scans provided through MRIs can provide doctors with a much more detailed image of a child’s brain. As researchers have begun to uncover more information about the differences autism creates in people with or without autism, there has been a push to try and spot these differences at earlier and earlier stages of development. Researchers are now using new technology and methods to turn their gaze to newborns and even fetuses in hopes of learning methods for diagnosing autism even before birth.
Instead of using the rough images of ultrasounds, doctors are beginning to take MRIs of the brains of fetuses and newborns. Researchers are particularly interested in studying babies who will be the younger siblings of children already diagnosed with autism. These particular subjects, referred to as ‘baby sibs,’ are more likely to develop autism than other children because the condition is already present in their family. A recent study compared MRI scans of baby sibs who did eventually develop autism to a control group that did not. In the group of baby sibs, researchers found that certain parts of the brain grew faster than they did in the control group. Researchers have also found that scans of 6-month old children who are later diagnosed with autism reveal more fluid between the brain and the skull than in scans of children who are not diagnosed with the condition. While the information that researchers are beginning to gather is proving invaluable, it hasn’t been available for very long.
Recent technological developments
Until recently, researchers have been unable to use MRI machines to take scans of fetal brains. A typical MRI usually takes about 10 minutes to perform. As the machine is scanning blood flow as a proxy for brain activity it takes a series of pictures which can then be studied and compared. When trying to scan fetuses, researchers have often been unable to capture a sufficient set of data. Fetuses often wiggle around a lot and make it difficult to capture clear images, and a mother’s breathing or digestive processes can also get in the machine’s way. But, researchers have discovered that by running the machine for 24 minutes instead of 10 they can capture a sufficient set of data to make up for images that are blurry and unreadable.
While using an MRI machine for 24 minutes instead of 10 can produce a clearer data set, some researchers have pointed out that it’s an expensive and time consuming process. Instead, some researchers are working to develop an algorithm that will take fetal movement into account and create images that correct for these disturbances. This initiative uses data from MRIs conducted on adults who were told to move their heads around during a scan. The algorithm can then use these patterns and apply them to scans of fetuses to produce a more accurate and clear image.
But all of these advances and developments in MRI technology would be useless without something to compare the data to. In order to provide a sufficient data set to researchers working with fetal MRI scans, The Developing Human Connectome Project was born. This initiative is seeking to gather a collection of MRI scans of over 1,500 fetuses and babies at different developmental stages. With enough data, the researchers will be able to map out the development of the brain and neural wiring over time in order to provide a reference point for continued research on the effects of autism on brain development. While it’s certainly a huge undertaking, the team has already collected data from over 600 brain scans.
What it accomplishes
Although research is still in the early stages, initiatives which are exploring the early stages of development in children with autism will certainly be an invaluable long-term investment to the community. On one level, this research builds up the body of information that is available about the condition and how it affects humans. Autism is still in many ways a mysterious condition. While researchers can pinpoint certain symptoms and behaviors associated with autism, we don’t know why it develops, and we don’t have any methods for reversing the effects of the condition on the body. Since autism presents at such an early developmental stage, it’s crucial for researchers to gather data about how the condition functions from the beginning. The more information that researchers are able to gather about when autism develops and how it affects the development of a child’s brain, the closer we’ll get to fully understanding the condition.
On a more practical level, fetal MRIs now allow medical providers to catch and diagnose autism at an earlier stage. In previous years, autism could often not be diagnosed until a child was well into his or her elementary years because a diagnosis was based on behavioral symptoms. Researchers have learned that if adjustments and coping skills are taught at an early stage, even before a child begins school, then the child will be more likely to be successful long-term. If researchers can pinpoint precise differences between an autistic fetal brain and a non-autistic fetal brain, then parents and caregivers will be able to begin adjusting their interactions and providing their child with coping skills from day one. Undoubtedly, this knowledge and attention from such an early stage would be incredibly helpful for a child’s growth. While it’s unlikely that every pregnant woman will undergo a fetal MRI to determine whether or not her baby has autism, the body of knowledge being developed with this technology will still be helpful in providing earlier and more accurate diagnoses.
Learning to cope with autism can be a difficult journey for patients and caregivers alike. While a child can be taught helpful skills and strategies at any stage, research strongly indicates that the earlier these strategies are taught, the better off a child will be in the long-term. There are still countless questions about autism that remain to be answered by the medical community. The origins of the condition, the impact it has on development, and the best ways to care for a child with autism are all areas of research that will continue to be developed in the coming years. While there is still plenty of work to be done, new developments in technology and strategies for using that technology such as the recent uses of fetal MRIs are taking steps towards answering these questions.