Babies born with a specific type of brain abnormality at a low birth weight are at a higher risk of developing autism spectrum disorders (ASD) later in life, according to a new study led by Michigan State University.
The study was announced on Feb.25, 2013 and appears in the "Journal of Pediatrics."
Researchers found that babies born with low birth weights were seven times more likely to be diagnosed with autism later in life. An ultrasound taken just after birth can show enlarged brain cavities called ventricles that store spinal fluid - an indicator of a higher risk of developing autism. Ventricular enlargement is more prevalent in premature babies and may be a sign that brain tissue called white matter has been lost.
“For many years there’s been a lot of controversy about whether vaccinations or environmental factors influence the development of autism, and there’s always the question of at what age a child begins to develop the disorder,” said lead author Tammy Movsas, clinical assistant professor of pediatrics at MSU and medical director of the Midland County Department of Public Health.
“What this study shows us is that an ultrasound scan within the first few days of life may already be able to detect brain abnormalities that indicate a higher risk of developing autism.”
Researchers analyzed data from the cranial ultrasounds of 1,105 low-birth-weight newborns born in the mid-1980s. Participants were screened for autism at age 16. When a small group was tested at age 21, 14 tested positive for autism.
“This study suggests further research is needed to better understand what it is about loss of white matter that interferes with the neurological processes that determine autism,” said co-author Nigel Paneth, an MSU epidemiologist who helped organize the cohort. “This is an important clue to the underlying brain issues in autism.”