Infant Brains Show Autism Early


CHAPEL HILL, N.C. (Ivanhoe Newswire) — Early diagnosis is essential when it comes to autism. Researchers say studying babies’ brains may be a critical part of unlocking some of the mystery behind the condition. It could help researchers determine which children may go on to develop autism, and ultimately lead to better outcomes.

Katharine Kollins had no idea her first born child Grayson had autism until he was two years old.

Kollins explained, “There were definitely things that were not typical, but little things.”

When Grayson stopped speaking after his little sister Evelyn was born, they got the diagnosis.

Kollins continued, “It doesn’t feel like your world anymore and everything is kind of crashing.”

Heather Cody Hazlett, PhD, UNC Assistant Professor, Department of Psychiatry at the Carolina Institute for Developmental Disabilities told Ivanhoe, “One in 68 children have an autism spectrum disorder.” (Read Full Interview)

Hazlett says the challenge is early diagnosis because certain behaviors may not show up until later. So her research team focused on babies’ brains.

Hazlett said, “Looking at very, very young children, so infants that are at high risk for autism.”

The ten-year study at the University of North Carolina looked at the MRI brain scans of more than 500 infants. What they found was that the brains of babies who later went on to develop autism were much bigger in size.

“By the time they’re two or three their brain volume is much greater than children that are just typically developing,” stated Hazlett.

Hazlett says the study was 80 percent accurate in identifying which children were going to end up on the spectrum.

Hazlett stated, “So that kids can enter into treatment and get interventions just as quickly and as early as possible.”

Katharine enrolled her daughter in the study but she didn’t develop autism. She wishes they had known earlier with Grayson.

“We would have resources available to us immediately,” Kollins said.

Giving children with autism the support they need to grow and thrive.

UNC is planning another study to replicate their findings. The NIH is also funding another study to follow the babies into school age. For more information please visit or

Contributors to this news report include: Janna Ross, Field Producer; Roque Correa, Videographer; Cyndy McGrath, Supervising Producer; Gabriella Battistiol, Assistant Producer; Jamison Koczan, Editor.

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BACKGROUND: Autism spectrum disorders are characterized by difficulties with social-interaction, communication challenges, and a tendency to engage in repetitive behaviors. Symptoms and severity widely vary across these three core concepts. Together, they may result in mild challenges for someone on the high-functioning end of the spectrum. For others, whose symptoms are more severe repetitive behaviors and lack of spoken language interfere with their daily lives. The basic symptoms of autism often come side by side with other medical conditions and challenges; these can also vary widely in severity. Some of these things include sleep, mood, anxiety, and attention disorders. Autism is usually a life-long condition, but all children and adults benefit from interventions or therapies. These can reduce symptoms and increase abilities/skills. Ideally it is best to begin intervention as soon as possible; however, the benefits of therapy can continue throughout life.


DIAGNOSING: There is no medical test to diagnose autism spectrum disorder. Doctors will study the child’s development and behavior to make a diagnosis. ASD may sometimes be detected at 18 months or even younger. However, by age 2, a diagnosis by an experienced professional can be considered extremely reliable. Many children do not receive a final diagnosis until much older and this delay means these children may not get the help they need. Diagnosis takes two steps; a developmental screening and a comprehensive diagnostic evaluation.


NEW STUDY: The challenge in early diagnosis is certain behaviors may not show up until later in life. A research team at the University of North Carolina focused a ten-year study on babies’ brains, specifically young children and infants at high risk of autism. They looked at the MRI scans of more than 500 infants and used the information about the size, volume, and structure of the brain. The study led them to find that the brains of babies who later went on to develop autism were much larger in size than those of children who were typically developing. The study was 80 percent accurate in identifying which children were going to end up on the spectrum.

MORE INFORMATION: There have been studies showing children with autism have enlarged head size and then others have looked at this using brain MRI studies. But there have been varying findings and so it seems that the time period when this is most commonly found is when kids are young.  Some research in animals suggests the possibility of early over proliferation of a certain type of neural cell (called progenitor cells) that might lead to brain enlargement (particularly surface area enlargement).

(Source: Heather Hazlett, PhD)


Mark Derewicz

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Doctor Q and A

Read the entire Doctor Q&A for Heather Cody Hazlett, PhD

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