Autism is rarely out of the news.
Children with autism often show hints of the disorder by their first birthdays, such as not responding to their names or making eye contact.
"It was a small study, a little over 100 kids, so I don't know that we can now say as pediatricians, we should order MRIs for all these kids", O'Reilly noted. For the children considered at higher risk for autism, those with older siblings who have it, the risk may be as high as 20 percent.
Over recent years, there has been an increasing drive to find biological markers for diseases, including autism. "I think there's wide consensus that that's likely to have more impact at a time when the brain is most malleable and before the symptoms have consolidated". They also looked at the surface area and thickness of the cerebral cortex, the brain's outer layer. The computer correctly predicted an autism diagnosis for 81 percent of the children.
Using magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), researchers took brain scans at 6 months, 12 months and 24 months of children who were at high risk for autism because their older siblings had the disorder.
This research project included hundreds of children from across the country and was led by researchers at the Carolina Institute for Developmental Disabilities (CIDD) at the University of North Carolina (UNC).
Hear from one of the researchers who conducted the study, tonight on NBC Nightly News. Having an older brother or sister with autism puts an infant at greater risk of developing the disorder.
The researchers then used the early scans and machine learning to develop an algorithm that could predict the development of autism.
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Researchers still aren't sure what causes this neurological development, but being able to spot it early on would enable doctors to give parents of high-risk children an earlier diagnosis and intervention plan. By analyzing brain scans of more than 150 infants - two thirds of whom had a brother or sister with autism, putting them at a much higher risk of developing the condition- the researchers pinpointed autism biomarkers.
It all has to do with brain volume.
This finding confirms earlier studies that also found accelerated expansion of cortical surface area in ASD.
Until recently, the average age of diagnosis for autism was about four years, NBC News reported, but the new research suggests autism may be detectable within a child's first year. Although there is still no cure, early intervention provides an opportunity to reduce symptoms and improve social, cognitive, and emotional skills.
"That allows us to consider intervening before the behaviors of autism appear", Dr. Joseph Piven, one of the study's authors, told the BBC.
"We view this is, particularly in this high-familial risk sample, as a very real possibility of pre-symptomatic detection", Piven said.
"It's pretty exciting, as far as I'm concerned it's the first study that I've seen that like actually produces some hope", Keller said.