Early Indicators of Autism May Be Identified in Fetal Brain Scans

Summary: A study by King’s College researchers has identified a link between autism traits and isolated fetal ventriculomegaly – a common antenatal brain abnormality. Using MRI brain scans, the study supports the need for early identification and intervention for families and could improve the long-term support of those affected.

Source: King’s College London

Researchers have used MRI brain scans of children with isolated fetal ventriculomegaly to measure neurodevelopment and investigate the presence of autism traits at school age.

In a paper published in Nature Communications, King’s researchers from Centre for the Developing Brain have discovered evidence supporting an association between isolated ventriculomegaly and autism traits.

The study followed two groups of children, one with a normal fetal brain MR assessment and those with an antenatal diagnosis of isolated ventriculomegaly, with a developmental follow up assessments at 2 years of age and primary school age.

Participating children were initially scanned as fetuses then tested with a range of developmental measures including IQ, autism traits, sustained attention, neurological functioning, behavior, executive function, sensory processing, co-ordination and adaptive behaviors.

Fetal ventriculomegaly is the most common antenatally-diagnosed brain abnormality and is diagnosed when the lateral ventricles measure larger than normal on antenatal ultrasound or MR imaging.

This study demonstrates an association between this most common developmental fetal brain anomaly and autism traits. The results may improve counseling for families and aid early identification, support and intervention, with further research warranted to confirm initial findings within a larger population.

This shows fetal brain scans
Fetal ventriculomegaly is the most common antenatally-diagnosed brain abnormality and is diagnosed when the lateral ventricles measure larger than normal on antenatal ultrasound or MR imaging. Credit: King’s College London

“While this approach offers only a partial indicator of future outcomes, better prediction may have important implications for the long-term support of families. For example, early identification means that parents can be counseled on potential future outcomes and increased awareness of the onset of autism traits in their child would allow earlier and faster access to supporting programs,” says Dr. Vanessa Kyriakopoulou, senior research associate in Neuroscience & Neuroimaging.

“There is a clear need for more long-term data combining high quality brain imaging with long term developmental follow up in children with antenatally-diagnosed isolated ventriculomegaly or indeed with other common fetal brain anomalies to improve our understanding about the susceptibility of developing autism,” says Professor Mary Rutherford, Perinatal Imaging & Health.

About this autism research news

Author: Press Office
Source: King’s College London
Contact: Press Office – King’s College London
Image: The image is credited to King’s College London

Original Research: Open access.
Characterisation of ASD traits among a cohort of children with isolated fetal ventriculomegaly” by Vanessa Kyriakopoulou et al. Nature Communications


Characterisation of ASD traits among a cohort of children with isolated fetal ventriculomegaly

Fetal ventriculomegaly is the most common antenatally-diagnosed brain abnormality. Imaging studies in antenatal isolated ventriculomegaly demonstrate enlarged ventricles and cortical overgrowth which are also present in children with autism-spectrum disorder/condition (ASD).

We investigate the presence of ASD traits in a cohort of children (n = 24 [20 males/4 females]) with isolated fetal ventriculomegaly, compared with 10 controls (n = 10 [6 males/4 females]).

Neurodevelopmental outcome at school age included IQ, ASD traits (ADOS-2), sustained attention, neurological functioning, behaviour, executive function, sensory processing, co-ordination, and adaptive behaviours.

Pre-school language development was assessed at 2 years. 37.5% of children, all male, in the ventriculomegaly cohort scored above threshold for autism/ASD classification.

Pre-school language delay predicted an ADOS-2 autism/ASD classification with 73.3% specificity/66.7% sensitivity. Greater pre-school language delay was associated with more ASD symptoms.

In this study, the neurodevelopment of children with isolated fetal ventriculomegaly, associated with altered cortical development, includes ASD traits, difficulties in sustained attention, working memory and sensation-seeking behaviours.

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