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Ultrasound Test May Reveal Baby's Risk of Autism

Update Date: Feb 25, 2013 11:51 AM EST

Though autism spectrum disorder is a relatively common one, it is still fairy mysterious. While they have leads, scientists do not know conclusively what causes the condition. Most of the time, it cannot even be diagnosed until the age of two or three, because diagnosis is often dependent on noticing whether children are hitting developmental milestones. However, for the first time, scientists announced that an ultrasound test may be able to determine a child's risk for autism spectrum disorder.

The study was a collaborative effort among Columbia University Medical Center, the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine and Michigan State University, among others. The study was conducted using the data from 1,105 babies who were born with a low birth weight in the mid-1980s. Children with low birth weight were singled out because recent studies have found that babies with low birth weight are five times as likely as normal birth weight babies to develop autism spectrum disorder later in life.

All of the babies had cranial ultrasounds conducted just after birth. The same participants were screened for autism at the age of 16 years old. Five years later, at the age of 21, a special group was selected for more rigorous screening for autism spectrum disorder. In total, 14 participants were identified as having autism spectrum disorder.

"For many years there's been a lot of controversy about whether vaccinations or environmental factors influence the development of autism, and there's always the question of at what age a child begins to develop the disorder," lead author Tammy Movsas, a clinical assistant professor of pediatrics at Michigan State University and the medical director of the Midland County Department of Public Health, said in a statement. "What this study shows us is that an ultrasound scan within the first few days of life may already be able to detect brain abnormalities that indicate a higher risk of developing autism."

The study found that babies whose ultrasounds revealed that they had enlarged ventricles were seven times more likely to develop autism spectrum disorder when they became older. These cavities in the brain store spinal fluid and are more common among premature infants. The enlargement of the ventricles may indicate the loss of white matter, which is important for the communication of different regions in the brain.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 1 in 88 children has autism spectrum disorder.

The study was published in the Journal of Pediatrics.

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