Looking For Early Signs of Autism

For the past five years, under the helm of Sarah Paterson, research assistant professor at Penn’s Perelman School of Medicine, and Robert Schultz, director of the Center for Autism Research at The Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, researchers have been looking for early signs of autism in very young children with older siblings diagnosed with the condition.

Autism or autism spectrum disorders (ASD) affect 1 out of every 88 children in the United States.

The research, called the Infant Brain Imaging Study (IBIS), looks for potential early developmental precursors to autism in children as early as 6 months of age. It follows infants whose older siblings have been diagnosed with ASD and compares them to siblings of typically developing children. Siblings of children with autism have a risk of developing autism 20 times higher than the general population. Under the study, the children receive developmental evaluations and brain imaging at 6, 12, 24, and 36 months of age, to look for very early brain features that may be characteristic of children who go on to develop autism.

Early in 2012, the IBIS team released a significant finding that the brains of children who went on to develop autism were markedly different from other children at 6 months of age—even before behavioral signs of autism were observed. Since then, the National Institutes of Health has announced that the project will be funded for another five years, and will be expanded to include the study of children starting at 3 months of age. With further research, IBIS team hopes to discover an autism biomarker that could improve methods of early detection for autism. Earlier identification and treatment may lead to better outcomes for young children and their families.

Video by Kurtis Sensenig