A spring publication in the journal Neuron reported on a reliable method to forecast autism. The study, conducted by Eric Courchesne, Director of the University of California, San Diego’s Autism Center of Excellence, took eight years and the participation of 103 babies. The method was simple.
To determine the child’s prognosis all that was needed was: a nap, a nursery rhyme and a magnetic resonance imaging scanner. The test showed that even in sleep and even at an age when some babies lack words, a baby’s brain responds to the spoken work to predict if the child will develop speech, comprehension and social skills. The brain scans revealed that a typical child will respond to the spoken word with robust activity in the brain structures most associated with language, memory, reward, emotion and social judgment. There is little activity in the brain regions linked to motor control and sensory processing.
In babies who went on to have the most severe forms of autism the brain region activity was reversed. Motor control and sensory processing lit up with strong activity, and there was no activity in the language, memory and social judgment regions. Courchesne said the study sheds light on autism. It may not be a spectrum, but rather more than one disorder with different causes and likely more than one approach to effective treatment.
In the study there were some babies who had received a diagnosis of autism but had brain activation patterns like normally developing children. These children later developed strong language skills and better social skills. Courchesne noted that this explains the long-observed pattern in autism that about half the children develop language skills and social skills in response to intervention.
It may not be the attributes of the intervention but rather that the children are starting from very different places. Those with more severe autism probably need more intensive intervention to ready them for different treaments. Understanding the differences in infants with signs of autism could be the beginning of targeted, more effective treatment.