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UNC Study Links Autism To Increased Cerebrospinal Fluid

Right: MRI of a baby at 6 months who was diagnosed with autism at 2 years. The dark space between the brain folds and skull indicate increased amounts of cerebrospinal fluid. Left: MRI of a baby who was not diagnosed with autism at age 2.
UNC School of Medicine

Researchers at UNC-Chapel Hill might have found an early predictor of autism in infants.

Post-doctoral fellow Mark Shen is part of a team that published the results of a study that confirms the findings of a previous one: Many high-risk children who develop autism show elevated levels of cerebrospinal fluid in MRI brain scans. This can show up as early as six months old, whereas most children aren't diagnosed until age three.

Shen says it's not yet clear whether the increased fluid causes autism.

"We know that about 70 percent of kids that had this early brain marker went on to develop autism themselves, but we need more studies to show whether it actually is a cause of autism," Shen said. "Right now what we know is it's a sign, an early marker.”

Typically, autism is diagnosed based on behavior around the time the child is 3 years old. Shen says early autism diagnoses could mean that children get the behavioral help they need earlier, which can improve quality of life.

"The earlier that we can detect autism, the sooner that behavioral therapists and behavioral intervention can start," said Shen. "And what's been shown very strongly is that the earlier that we treat the behavioral symptoms, the better the long-term outcomes are for the children."

Shen says the Infant Brain Imaging Study has to determine whether the increased fluid is connected with other learning challenges. And whether it's as useful a predictor in children at low risk of autism.

The findings are published in the journal Biological Psychiatry. This work builds on research Shen performed at the University of California at Davis when he was a graduate student.

Interested families are invited to sign up for notifications about opportunities to participate in future IBIS research.

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