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Early brain scans could help autistic children access speech therapy sooner

Wednesday 22nd February 2017
Children at high risk of autism could begin accessing speech therapy sooner if they undergo brain scans from as early as six months of age. Image: semnic via iStock
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Scientists in the US have discovered that autism can be detected in brain scans up to one year before individuals begin displaying symptoms relating to the condition.

As a result, the way that autism is diagnosed and treated could be significantly transformed, with patients believed to be at risk of the disorder then able to access the best treatment for their individual needs, such as speech and language therapy, as early as possible.

Researchers based at the University of North Carolina performed brain scans at the ages of six months, 12 months and 24 months on a total of 148 children, many of whom were deemed to be at high risk of autism due to having older siblings with the condition.

Analysis of these scans showed that children with notable differences in the cerebral cortex - a part of the brain that plays a key role in interpreting language and enabling speech - were significantly more likely to go on to receive a diagnosis for autism that their counterparts with 'normal' brain scans.

Therefore, these findings suggest that children thought to be at high risk of falling on the autistic spectrum may benefit from brain scans so they can begin accessing the best possible treatment for their needs before their autism starts to manifest itself in ways that limit or seriously affect patients' lives.

Speaking to BBC News, Professor Joseph Piven, one of the researchers on the project, commented: "Now we have the possibility that we can identify those who are most likely to go on to get autism.

"That allows us to consider intervening before the behaviours of autism appear. 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, so we find it very promising."

Written by Martin Lambert

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