Bioethics Blogs

Autism Spectrum Disorder: Progress Toward Earlier Diagnosis


Research shows that the roots of autism spectrum disorder (ASD) generally start early—most likely in the womb. That’s one more reason, on top of a large number of epidemiological studies, why current claims about the role of vaccines in causing autism can’t be right. But how early is ASD detectable? It’s a critical question, since early intervention has been shown to help limit the effects of autism. The problem is there’s currently no reliable way to detect ASD until around 18–24 months, when the social deficits and repetitive behaviors associated with the condition begin to appear.

Several months ago, an NIH-funded team offered promising evidence that it may be possible to detect ASD in high-risk 1-year-olds by shifting attention from how kids act to how their brains have grown [1]. Now, new evidence from that same team suggests that neurological signs of ASD might be detectable even earlier.

That evidence comes from a study of children at high risk of ASD, who as babies underwent specialized brain scans while asleep to measure connectivity between different regions of the brain [2]. Using a sophisticated computer algorithm to analyze the scans, researchers could predict accurately which infants would receive a diagnosis of ASD 18 months later—and which would not. While the results need to be confirmed in larger groups of babies, these findings suggest that neuroimaging may be a valuable tool for early detection of ASD.

In the new study, researchers enrolled 59 babies who were 6 months old and had an older sibling diagnosed with ASD.

The views, opinions and positions expressed by these authors and blogs are theirs and do not necessarily represent that of the Bioethics Research Library and Kennedy Institute of Ethics or Georgetown University.