Brain Scans Catch Autism Months Before Symptoms Appear

The symptoms of autism generally begin to emerge in a person between 12 and 18 months of age. Oftentimes, babies develop normally until this age, but then they start regressing and lose skills. Now, a recent study suggests it may be possible to spot autism on an MRI scan months before symptoms start. [1]

Geraldine Dawson, a clinical psychologist and autism researcher at Duke University who was not involved in the new work, says:

“We’re learning that there are biological changes that occur at [the time] or before the symptoms start to emerge. It’s the ability to detect autism at its very earliest stages that’s going to allow us to intervene before the full syndrome is manifest.”

Read: New Scientific Discovery Could Make it Easier to Diagnose, Treat Autism

For the study, researchers conducted MRI scans on 150 children, 3 times: at 6 months old, 1 year, and 2 years. More than 100 of those children were at high risk for autism because they had an older sibling diagnosed with the disorder. Infants with older siblings who have autism have about a 1 in 5 chance of developing autism spectrum disorder (ASD).

The team found that 8 times out of 10, they could correctly predict which children would go on to develop autism based on the faster growth rate of the surface areas of their brains. They detail their findings in the journal Nature. [1] [2]

Source: ABC News – A 2011 study found that people with certain types of autism have bigger brains.

Washington University child psychiatrist Dr. Kelly Botteron, explains:

“It was basically 80, 85% predictive of being able to basically make a diagnosis based on just their MRI scan changes from 6 to 12 to 24 months.” [3]

The study’s lead author, Heather Hazlett, a psychologist at the University of North Carolina’s Carolina Institute for Developmental Disabilities (CIDD), says that enlargement of the brain seemed to correlate with the onset of symptoms, but more research is needed. The study was small, and doctors shouldn’t start conducting MRIs on children in an effort to diagnose them. [1]

Read: 1st Trimester Ultrasounds may be Linked to Autism Symptoms in Children

Still, if the findings can be recreated in a larger study, MRI could become a new diagnostic tool for high-risk children before their symptoms begin, giving parents the opportunity to start treating their child at a time when treatment will be possibly most effective. We just have to be careful with recommending such measures, or we could see issues similar to those arising from mammograms (causing issues due to being unnecessarily overused). Currently, the average age of diagnosis is about 4 years. [2]

Botteron says:

“There’s pretty good evidence that the earlier we can make a diagnosis and begin interventions, even things like speech therapy, physical therapy, occupational therapy, kinds of behavioral interventions that we can have a much better long-term outcome.” [3]

Some of those interventions and treatments could include “hyper-parenting,” McPartland explains, meaning that a child headed for autism might benefit from more parental interaction such as cooing, singing, and laughing. He says:

“Supersaturate a child’s environment with social information as much as you can. And hope that it takes.” [1]


[1] Scientific American

[2] USA Today

[3] CBS News St. Louis

ABC News

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Getting a Second Opinion About Health Issues Could Save Your Life

You shouldn’t take one doctor’s word for it when they diagnosis an illness, as 88% of patients who seek a second opinion receive a new or revised diagnosis. Another 21% of patients receive a “distinctly different” diagnosis, meaning the first doctor’s diagnosis wasn’t even in the ballpark, a recent study says. [1]

Doctors confirm diagnoses in just 12% of cases, according to researchers, who detail their findings in the Journal of Evaluation in Clinical Practice.

Receiving a second opinion could be vital for patients to receive accurate and timely treatment of what ails them, and prevent unnecessary treatments.

Related: 1 in 5 Children are Improperly Diagnosed with ADHD

In a statement, lead researcher James Naessens, Sc.D., a health care policy researcher at Mayo Clinic, says:

“Knowing that more than 1 out of every 5 referral patients may be completely [and] incorrectly diagnosed is troubling — not only because of the safety risks for these patients prior to correct diagnosis, but also because of the patients we assume are not being referred at all.”

Sometimes, it may even be important to seek a third opinion, according to Dr. David Agus.

“Obviously you want to get the right diagnosis so you can have the right treatment and there’s no way to treat effectively unless you know what you’re up against.”

Good Intentions, Bad Diagnosis

For the study, physicians at the Mayo Clinic looked at the medical records of 286 patients who visited a primary healthcare provider between 2009 and 2010. Each patient sought a second opinion, either because they were urged to do so, or they took the initiative on their own. [2]

  • Just 12% of the patients were given the same diagnosis after seeking a second opinion
  • 66% of patients had a slightly altered diagnosis
  • Approximately 1/5 received a completely different diagnosis from the original.
69264331 – senior medics looking puzzled over xray

Read: Study Suggests Patients may be Able to Predict Illness Better than Doctors

If you’ve ever visited a diagnostic site like WebMD, then you probably already know that symptoms almost never apply to only 1 condition. There are thousands of diseases and only hundreds of symptoms, and the symptoms of different diseases often mimic each other.

For example, pancreatitis and pancreatic cancer share many of the same symptoms. Similarly, many people miss the signs of a heart attack because the symptoms can be similar to a stomach virus.

Previous research shows that diagnostic errors “contribute to approximately 10% of patient deaths” and “account for 6-17% of adverse events in hospitals.” [3]

Mark L. Graber, a senior fellow at the research institute RTI International and founder of the Society to Improve Diagnosis in Medicine, says:

“Doctors are humans, and they make the same cognitive mistakes we all make. If you are given a serious diagnosis, or you’re not responding the way you should [to medication], a second opinion is a very good idea. Fresh eyes catch mistakes.”


[1] CBS News

[2] Quartz

[3] The Washington Post

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