Health Team

UNC study findings could help treat autism before symptoms begin

Posted March 6, 2017 4:38 p.m. EST
Updated March 6, 2017 6:04 p.m. EST

— University of North Carolina researchers have identified a brain abnormality in infants with a strong link to later symptoms of autism, which could provide a target for earlier therapeutic interventions.

In May 2013, the Kollins’ enrolled their 4-year-old son, Grayson, and their 10-month-old daughter, Evelyn, in a UNC study.

Researchers were interested in younger siblings of children with autism because they are at a higher risk of developing the disorder.

Grayson was diagnosed with autism at age 2 and a half.

“He regressed quite a bit. He quit speaking almost entirely,” said mother Katherine Kollins.

Today, Grayson is almost 7 years old and thriving. Evelyn, now 4, is neuro-typical but research revealed a new biomarker among many younger siblings in the study.

MRI images of babies taken at 6 months, 12 months and 24 months of age showed a difference between infants at high risk and low risk for the disorder, according to study author Dr. Mark Shen.

“What you’re seeing on the bottom here is a brain abnormality that we found at 6 months of age and that was an increased amount of cerebral spinal fluid, up and around the brain,” Shen said.

Shen said cerebral spinal fluid (CSF) plays an important role in brain development. CSF normally drains out and is replenished four times each day.

“And the reason why that’s important is it’s constantly filtering out these inflammatory proteins,” Shen said.

70 percent of infants in the study who had the increased CSF at 6 months of age went on to develop autism.

Dr. Joseph Piven, the co-author of the study, said the finding presents a great opportunity.

“It means that we might get ahead of the actual occurrence of autism before the symptoms appear, before the brain changes appear, at a time when the brain is most malleable,” he said.

Katherine Kollins said early and continued interventions have helped Grayson improve in many ways. He now attends school in a typical classroom with other kids his age.

“Grayson has grown into a very sweet, easy to talk to, likeable guy,” she said.

While the research findings are promising, researchers said more studies are needed.