Brain development, especially in children, has been the topic surrounding many different studies and experiments within the past few years. The birth-to-three period is the fastest rate of brain development across the entire lifespan, but researchers have been trying to figure out if different developmental rates can have an impact on a child’s mental functioning down the line.
According to researchers at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, the answer is yes. They have found that developments in brain volume during the first year of life can be a clue that the child is at a high risk of developing autism spectrum disorder.
Researchers used a new diagnostic MRI tool that scanned children’s brains for signs of autism. This developmental disability is characterized by behavioral problems, along with difficulties communicating and forming relationships with others. The symptoms usually become obvious between two and four years of age.
So, to see if they could make predictions that could potentially help parents invest in early intervention care, the researchers studied two groups of infants for different brain changes. One group had 106 “high-risk” infants that had a sibling with autism, and the other studied 42 infants with no immediate family history of autism. The MRI scans were given at specific times between six and 24 months of age, and the research team measured surface area, overall volume, and thickness of the cerebral cortex in different regions of the brain.
One of the primary findings of the study was that children who had an overgrowth in their cerebral cortex went on to be diagnosed with autism. With this in mind, the team was able to predict with almost perfect accuracy what children would go on to develop autism by age two. Of both groups, 15 children were diagnosed with autism at the end of the study.
Once diagnosed, doctors and specialists use the fundamental principles of Applied Behavior Analysis to develop language, social, academic, and daily living skills in children 18 years and younger with autism and related conditions. It is important to know that even if a child is diagnosed with autism, they can still live a perfectly normal life, with help of these training standards.
The area that was the most studied was the cerebral cortex, the outer layer of the brain’s tissue. It is about the same size as a pizza and is bunched up inside the skull, which gives the brain a wrinkly look. Cortical thickness is the actual height of this tissue, and while it does develop fast in infants, those with autism experience even quicker growth.
“What we found was that cortical thickness didn’t differ between the groups (of infants), but surface area increased at a higher rate than normal between 6 and 12 months of age” in the infants later diagnosed with autism, Dr. Joseph Piven explained to CNN, referring to this development as the “hyper-expansion of the cortical surface area.”
While these findings are promising, since the study had such a small sample size, it is hard to determine if these findings can really apply to a much larger group of people. However, the goal is that if an infant does experience dramatic brain changes between six and 12 months old, doctors and specialists will be able to then focus specifically on any problems from an incredibly young age. Right now, doctors typically only focus on children with autism once they’re four years old, but there are no limits to what can happen if they are diagnosed at as young at six months old.
So what’s next? The researchers at UNC Chapel Hill will expand their research and now focus on the brain development of children after their second birthday.