Study: New Brain Imaging Technique May Aid Early Autism Detection

Researchers are testing a method that could help them identify infants with the highest risk for autism.

There are still a lot of question marks surrounding autism, but what doctors and researchers do know is that the earlier it’s diagnosed, the better. Right now, that’s at about age two, when a child’s behavioral and language issues become apparent. But TIME reports on a new brain-imaging technique that could allow doctors to identify the kids most at risk at as early as six months old.

The test is called fractional anisotropy, and it measures the density of nerve fibers in the brain. By tracking the brain development of 92 infants, researchers found that babies who were eventually diagnosed with autism had a thicker, denser nerve fibers at six months old than their non-ASD peers. At age 2, the ASD kids had less-dense nerve fibers than those without the condition—so somewhere along the line, the situation reversed.

Although follow-up studies are needed to confirm the findings, it could be a big step forward in autism treatment and research. If doctors are able to identify markers for the condition earlier in life, therapists could intervene during crucial periods of brain development to help undo—or, at least, mitigate—the social and language issues down the road.

Read more about the fascinating work over at TIME.