Although the research is still early, a small study from Harvard Medical School suggests that the brain scans of babies taken in the womb can help predict whether or not a child might be diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) in the future.
The research team took a look at 39 MRI brain scans of fetuses at the 25-week mark of gestation. Of those examined, nine were formally diagnosed with ASD. The children who were later diagnosed had a noticeable difference in one region of the brain, the temporal lobe, compared to those who were not later diagnosed with ASD.
So what was different about these brain scans? The insular lobe — which is believed to play a significant role in motor control, social behavior, and sensory processing — appeared to be larger in the MRI scans of children later diagnosed with ASD.
ASD is a complex condition characterized by “impairment in reciprocal social interaction, impairment in communication, and the presence of repetitive and stereotypic patterns of behaviors, interests, and activities,” according to the Association for Science in Autism Treatment.
Children in the ASD group also had “statistically significantly larger amygdala, hippocampal commissure, and insula compared to the non-ASD controls.” The amygdalae (we have two, despite the fact it is often referred to in the singular manner), like the insular lobe, is found deep in the temporal lobe and also helps regulate emotions, namely those involving fearful stimuli.
“Given that many genetic and environmental factors could affect the emergence of ASD starting in the fetal stages, it is ideal to identify the earliest signature of brain abnormalities in prospective autism patients,” Alpen Ortug, PhD and postdoctoral research fellow at Athinoula A. Martinos Center for Biomedical Imaging, Massachusetts General Hospital, Harvard Medical School, told Neuroscience News.
The study is the latest in a growing body of evidence that suggests that ASD begins in early development, further proving it is not caused by vaccines or other environmental factors often cited in pseudoscientific rhetoric about ASD.
"These results make it clear that we need to focus on these promising regions as potential biomarkers and find out the reason for these alterations," Ortug told Live Science in an email.
As of December 2021, roughly 1 in 44 children are formally diagnosed with ASD in the U.S. annually.