By Stephanie Stahl

PHILADELPHIA (CBS) — Researchers have discovered changes in the brains of young infants who later go on to develop autism. The new findings could eventually lead to earlier diagnosis and treatment.

Autism is one of the fastest-growing developmental disorders in the Unites States, and because it can be tricky to diagnose this new research could be a big, important advance with the potential to help hundreds of thousands of families.

New research may lead to the diagnosis of autism before symptoms occur.

Researchers from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill looked at the brain scans of infants at high risk of developing the disorder at six, 12 and 24 months.

They were able to predict which ones were going to develop autism with 80-percent accuracy.

“We see an increased rate of growth in the outer surface of the brain, the folds, the sort of waviness of the surface. That’s followed by an overgrowth of the brain in the second year,” said Dr. Joseph Piven, the study’s author.

The overgrowth of the brain coincided with the behaviors typical of autism that start to emerge in the second year. Researchers say by identifying the brain changes early, there’s the possibility of developing therapies and even drugs before the brain fully forms.

“It’s a time we’re talking about during the first year of life where the brain is most malleable,” said Dr. Piven.

Approximately one out of every 68 children in the United States has autism. Currently, it can be diagnosed as early as two.

Boys are nearly five times more likely than girls to have autism. While there’s no cure, doctors say early treatment can help control symptoms.

The new study was funded by the National Institutes of Health.


Stephanie Stahl