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Baby brain study pinpoints early signs of autism

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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. (KABC)

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 2 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. "It doesn't feel like your world anymore and everything is kind of crashing," said Kollins.

Heather Cody Hazlett a UNC Assistant Professor in the Department of Psychiatry said, "One in 68 children have an autism spectrum disorder."

Hazlett said the challenge is early diagnosis because certain behaviors may not show up until later, so her research team focused on babies' brains.

The 10-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 said the study was 80 percent accurate in identifying which children were going to end up on the spectrum.

Kollins 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.

UNC is planning another study to replicate their findings. The NIH is also funding another study to follow the babies into school age.

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