Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) may detect early signs of autism spectrum disorder (ASD) in infants whose siblings have autism, according to a study published in Nature.

Joseph Piven, a psychiatrist at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill, and colleagues scanned the brains of 106 high-risk infants at ages 6, 12, and 24 months using MRI to see if they could observe brain overgrowth, which is a biomarker for ASD. They also followed 42 low-risk infants. The researchers found that 15 of the high-risk infants were diagnosed with ASD at 24 months. MRI scans showed that the brain size of the infants grew faster between 12 and 24 months, compared with children who were not diagnosed with ASD. This accelerated growth occurred at the same time that behavioral signs of autism appeared. In infants aged 6 to 12 months and later diagnosed with autism, the cortical surface area of the brain grew faster, compared with infants who did not receive a diagnosis.

The investigators then sought to determine if MRI scans at 6 and 12 months could predict an autism diagnosis by age 2. The algorithm correctly predicted 30 of the 37 autism diagnoses (81%), while producing false-positives in 4 of the 142 infants who were not later diagnosed.

Continue Reading

“These findings demonstrate that early brain changes occur during the period in which autistic behaviors are first emerging,” stated the researchers.


  1. Callaway E. Brain scans spot early signs of autism in high-risk babies. Nature. 15 February 2017. doi:10.1038/nature.2017.21484
  2. Hazlett HC, Gu H, Munsell BC, et al. Early brain development in infants at high risk for autism spectrum disorder. Nature. 15 February 2017. doi: 10.1038/nature21369