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Can autism be detected in babies? UNC team gets $9.5 million to find out

What is autism?

Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is a group of developmental disabilities that can cause significant social, communication and behavioral challenges. Here are some of the signs and symptoms associated with autism.
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Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is a group of developmental disabilities that can cause significant social, communication and behavioral challenges. Here are some of the signs and symptoms associated with autism.

The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill is leading a research team looking to see if autism can be detected sooner.

The research team, co-led by Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, was given a $9.5 million grant from the National Institute of Mental Health to see if brain imaging can be used to detect a “high risk of autism” in infants, according to UNC Health Care.

Researchers want to eventually be able to detect autism before symptoms show, according to UNC Health Care.

They believe that being able to do so will allow treatment to begin at a younger age, which would help children with the disorder, UNC Health Care said.

Researchers will use MRI scans to look at the brains of 250 babies between the ages of 6 and 12 months who have siblings with autism. They will also examine their language development and behaviors that could predict a diagnosis, according to UNC Health Care.

“Our goal is to identify differences in the brain in infancy that accurately predict which children are most likely to later develop autism so that we can begin to eventually explore the effects of pre-symptomatic treatment in those infants at highest risk,” Dr. Joseph Piven, a leader of the research team and professor at UNC-Chapel Hill, told UNC Health Care.

Dr. John R. Pruett, another leader on the team and professor at Washington University School of Medicine, told UNC Health Care that the first phase of the study identified “brain imaging predictors of a later autism diagnosis” in 6 month olds that were at a high risk for autism.

In the next phase, the researchers are working with different babies to see if they get the same findings, Pruett said.

“In the future, we hope to test behavioral interventions earlier in high-risk infants who, currently, are still too young to receive an autism diagnosis,” he said.

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