Autism Awareness: Scanning the Brain

FRESNO, Calif.

Gracie goes everywhere big brother Seth goes, but her parents hope Gracie doesn't follow in Seth's footsteps when it comes to one thing, Seth has autism. Siblings have a one in five chance of developing autism.

"I was concerned about it," said Tony Whitaker, Gracie and Seth's father. They decided to enroll Gracie in a one-of-a-kind study. UNC researchers used a special kind of MRI imaging called, diffusion tensor imaging, to look at 15 brain connections of babies who had a sibling with autism. They found significant differences in 12 of the 15 connections in those who developed autism.

"What we find is the children who went on to have autism, we can see differences as early as six months, and that over time their brains changed less," Jason Wolff, Ph.D., a postdoctoral fellow at the University of North Carolina School of Medicine, explained.

Right now, it's almost impossible to diagnose autism at six months. These scans could offer a way to catch it much earlier.

"This is really before we can pick up any differences behaviorally," Dr. Wolff said. "If we could go earlier and earlier in our interventions, we could prevent autism from fully manifesting."

Gracie seems to be developing normally. A relief to her parents who say their little girl is a big part of helping Seth deal with his disorder.

"We can't imagine where Seth would be if it wasn't for Gracie," Sally Whitaker, Gracie and Seth's mother, said.

Doctor Wolff says the imaging could one day be used with behavioral exams, which are the current standard, to better diagnose autism. The hope is to catch it before signs start to show. A recent study published in pediatrics found when children as young as 18 months underwent therapy for autism, their IQ improved by 14 points compared to other kids with autism.

If you would like more information, please contact:
Jason Wolff, Ph.D.
Carolina Institute for Developmental Disabilities
University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

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