A Tale of Two Studies – About Autism

June 2017
Two quite different papers were published recently, which together directly address important aspects regarding our understanding about diagnosis, prevention and treatment of autism.

The first article is entitled, “Functional neuroimaging of high-risk 6-month-old infants predicts a diagnosis of autism at 24 months of age.” An earlier diagnosis – much earlier – might be on the horizon if this interesting MRI study holds true.

The algorithms are very dense. In fact, I had to ask my neuro-radio-pathologist friend to help me interpret the data, and he said the math gave him a headache! For example, “… a total of 974 functional connections in the 6-month- old brain that showed a relationship with behavior at 24 months and were different between groups. Together, these functional connections constituted <4% of the potential 26,335 total functional connections studied…”

It’s not anatomy, i.e. structure that was evaluated, but the workings of neural pathways, implying that autism (some forms of it, anyway) is present in the brain at a very early age. Autistic behaviors that could be predicted and, possibly successfully prevented or reduced, included social interaction, expressive language, and repetition, among a number of other important parameters.

This evaluation represents a new generation of ‘machine-based learning’, which itself begs further scrutiny. There was a small sample size, and questions remain about the reliably of testing an infant’s thoughts, while inside a moving, noisy environment. The bottom line is, there was high sensitivity and specificity for predicting signs and symptoms at 2 years.

A complementary investigation, published elsewhere, happened to appear this month. It is entitled, “Randomised trial of a parent-mediated intervention for infants at high risk for autism: longitudinal outcomes to age 3 years.” As in the other paper, younger siblings were chosen as subjects, due to their 20 times increased risk of developmental challenges. In similarly aged infants and toddlers, there were improved overall outcomes in the treatment group.

The authors wrote,”… that a very early intervention for at-risk infants has produced a sustained alteration of subsequent child developmental trajectory; reducing prodromal autism symptoms into the second and third years of life to a total of 24 months following end of the intervention.
(Possibly useful data in response to beneficiaries’ requests for insurance coverage?)

It is reassuring to observe that, “Earlier diagnosis can lead to appropriate preemptive treatment with improved outcomes,” has become a model of research. Authors of the MRI piece wrote, “Given the known plasticity of the brain and behavior during the first year of life, together with the absence of the defining features of the disorder, intervention during this presymptomatic phase, before consolidation of the full syndrome of ASD, is likely to show considerably stronger benefits compared with later treatments.”

Such analyses ought to shape new treatment paradigms for this exploding epidemic. As similar attitudes become more commonplace, it ought to behoove conventional medicine to look at this evidence-based approach, and start doing more appropriate assessments for patients diagnosed with ASD.

Of course, “further study is required.” In the meantime, information is accumulating that, even a pre-emptive diagnosis seems prudent.

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