The new experimental technique, using standard brain screening, is designed to focus solely on newborns known to be at high risk for autism because they have an older sibling who has it.
But the diagnostic breakthrough addresses a key problem that has confounded efforts to effectively screen for autism as quickly as possible: Babies typically don't show clear outward signs of the disorder until nearly the end of their second year of life.
By using scans to peek into the shifting size, surface area and thickness of certain parts of a baby's cerebral cortex as a baby hits the 6-month and 12-month mark, investigators found that they could forecast autism risk with 80 percent accuracy.
"These findings suggest a cascade of brain changes across the first two years of life that result in the emergence of autism at the end of the second year," explained study senior author Dr. Joseph Piven.
He is director of the Carolina Institute for Developmental Disabilities at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. ■
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