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Autism study aims to identify risk at birth

August 22, 2013 12:00:00 AM PDT
It's estimated that one in every 50 school children in the U.S. will be diagnosed with autism. Unfortunately, it can take doctors years to identify the disorder, delaying much needed treatment. Now, new research may help doctors predict a child's risk at birth.

Skiing alongside 12-year-old Jaya Dominici, you wouldn't know that she has severe autism unless you try to talk to her.

"She cannot read or write. She is still a bit of a toddler," said her mother, Maria Dominici.

Maria Dominici suspected her daughter was autistic at 18 months, but she wasn't diagnosed until 3 years old.

"It was really like a baseball bat right to the head, because you know it's going to be forever," she said.

Like Jaya, many kids don't get diagnosed until about 3 to 5 years at age, and early detection is critical.

"The brain is completely unformed at birth. We can change behaviors very early," said Dr. Harvey J. Kliman with the Yale University School of Medicine.

A new study examining the placenta, the organ that provides nutrients to the baby from the mother, may help doctors diagnose autism shortly after birth.

Researchers at Yale University and the University of California, Davis analyzed placentas from 217 births and found in families at high genetic risk for having an autistic child, there were more of these abnormal tissue folds or creases called trophoblast inclusions.

Having four or more of these folds predicted that an infant would have a 74 percent probability of being at risk for autism spectrum disorder.

Researchers won't know how many children, whose placentas were studied, will be diagnosed with autism for at least another year, but researchers say this could turn out to be the first non-genetic biological marker for autism to be used as early as birth.

"I think this one has the potential to affect many, many children," said Kliman.

Maria Dominici said this would have helped her get earlier intervention for her daughter.

Kliman says the test will be available in the next few months and his lab is preparing for an overflow of cases.

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