Infant Brain Imaging Study

NIH Autism Center of Excellence

What is IBIS?

This study of very early brain development in autism has the potential to provide important clues relevant to early detection of autism and discovering the early changes in the brain for young children with autism.

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Participants will travel to their closest study location to receive developmental and behavioral assessments, an MRI scan of the brain. Participants will be reimbursed for travel and related expenses. Assessment and MRI scans associated with the project are provided at no cost to the family, and participants will be given any new information gained upon completion of the study. Families of children at high risk for developing symptoms of autism will receive assistance with referrals for local services.

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Study Sites




St. Louis

Chapel Hill



What is the goal of the study?
The goal of our study is to increase our understanding of the timing and pattern of brain development in very young children with autism. This knowledge will help us to understand the underlying causes and brain mechanisms involved in autism and the relationship of those brain mechanisms to particular behaviors and psychological processes.
When can autism be diagnosed?
Autism is typically diagnosed around 3 years of age. Some children are brought to attention and receive a diagnosis even earlier at 2 years of age. Although some behavioral characteristics, qualitatively similar to the defining features of autism, can sometimes be observed at younger ages (for example at 12 months and later), typical features sufficient for a diagnosis of autism are not usually present before age 2 years.
What causes autism?
While we do not know specifically what causes autism, twin and family studies have demonstrated that genetic factors play a significant role in many cases. This study examines younger siblings (brothers and sisters) of children with autism. Twin and family studies have shown that younger brothers and sisters of children with autism are at a higher risk of also developing autism than those children that do not have relatives with this condition. Therefore by studying younger brothers and sisters of children with autism, some of whom will be unfortunately diagnosed with autism at later ages, we have the opportunity to gain insights into the developing brain in autism at these early ages before a formal diagnosis is determined. While we understand the worries this idea may raise in some families the insights possible about the developing brain in autism, from such a study, are potentially extremely valuable.
What does this study involve?
In particular some children with autism have been shown to have overall brain overgrowth by age 2 years. One large study of head circumference by our group suggests that this overgrowth begins (on average) around 12 months of age. We therefore propose to conduct an MRI (Magnetic Resonance Imaging) brain scan of children at risk for autism (i.e., younger brothers and sisters of older autistic individuals) at around 3 months of age, with repeat scans through 24 months of age. In addition to targeting brothers and sisters of autistic individuals, we will use newly developed behavioral assessment tools and parental questionnaires to help us identify infants at risk for autism. Through the use of MRI technology we will capture images of the brain and perform sophisticated brain measurements. The data gathered in this study will provide important information regarding early brain development in autism, which may in turn provide clues that will eventually result in early rationale interventions (e.g., early behavioral or medication treatments) to improve outcomes for children with autism.
Why study siblings?
In the search to understand autism, many research programs have begun looking at younger siblings of children with autism. While your child most likely does not have a diagnosis of autism, past family studies have found that siblings of a person with autism are at a higher risk for having autistic disorder than members of the general population. Most recently, results from our MRI study of brain development in 2 year olds showed that brain enlargement is already present at a young age in children with autism. The data collected suggest that brain overgrowth may begin as early as 12 months of age, if not earlier. This current project aims to identify very early brain features that may be characteristic of infants at risk for autism.
What is MRI?
MRI or Magnetic Resonance Imaging is a technology used to view inside the body without using X-rays. It can produce two or three-dimensional images using a large magnet, radio waves, and a computer. The magnetic fields MRI uses are not known t be harmful and are painless. Dramatic advances in MRI and imaging analysis are opening new windows into our understanding of the structures and processes of disorders of the developing brain, enabling researchers to launch promising studies that may help unravel the mysteries of autism.

IBIS in the News

Study: Brain Scans Could Predict Autism in Babies Who Have Autistic Older Siblings

The study focused on 59 infants and correctly predicted nine out of 11 children who were later diagnosed with autism. This is the second brain scan study with similar results. Nightly News June 8, 2017

Predicting autism: Study links infant brain connections to diagnoses at age two

In previous studies, researchers linked infant brain anatomy differences to autism diagnoses at age two. Now they show differences in functional connections between brain regions at 6 months to predict autism at age two.

ScienceDaily June 7, 2017

Baby brain scans can predict who is likely to develop autism

A machine-learning algorithm has analysed brain scans of 6-month-old children and predicted with near-certainty whether they will show signs of autism when they reach the age of 2. The finding means we may soon be able to intervene before symptoms appear, although whether that would be desirable is a controversial issue.

Daily News June 7, 2017

Neuroimaging technique may help predict autism among high-risk infants

Brain patterns precede behavioral symptoms of autism, NIH-funded study suggest. Functional connectivity magnetic resonance imaging (fcMRI) may predict which high-risk, 6-month old infants will develop autism spectrum disorder by age 2 years, according to a study funded by the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD) and the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), two components of the National Institutes of Health.

NIH June 7, 2017

Predicting Autism: Researchers Find Autism Biomarkers in Infancy

This first-of-its-kind study used MRIs to image the brains of infants, and then researchers used brain measurements and a computer algorithm to accurately predict autism before symptoms set in.

February 15, 2017

Brain scans show signs of autism

The results of a new autism study published in the American Journal of Psychiatry offer hope for an early diagnosis. NBC's Chris Jansing reports. Nightly News February 17, 2012

Scientific American: Autism Starts Months before Symptoms Appear, Study Shows
The Guardian: Brain scans could identify babies most at risk of developing autism, study shows
Edmonton Journal: University of Alberta part of team of researchers to find autism …
Time: Doctors May Be Able to Predict Autism Risk Much Earlier
Medscape:Measuring Brain Growth in Infancy May Predict Autism
NBC: Brain Scans Detect Signs of Autism in High-Risk Babies Before Age 1
CBS: Brain scans might help predict autism in babies before symptoms appear
Nature: Brain scans spot early signs of autism in high-risk babies
CNN: Autism predicted by infant brain changes, study says
CNBC: Scientists uncover an algorithm that predicts autism in high-risk babies
BBC: Autism detectable in brain long before symptoms appear
Quartz: A new method can predict autism in babies as young as 12 months old
WebMD: Experimental Test Can Spot Autism in Infancy 
Huffington Post: Doctors May Now Be Able To Predict Autism Before Age One
Futurity: Brain scans identify if baby sibling also has autism
Philly: Imaging study suggests possibility of predicting autism by age 1
Wired: This algorithm can spot signs of autism in children a year before they're diagnosed
Fortune: Can a Baby Be Diagnosed as Autistic?
IEEE Spectrum: AI Predicts Autism From Infant Brain Scans
Stat: Brain scans show potential to diagnose autism in infancy 
Today show: New test may be able to help diagnose autism as early as infancy
WSJ: Overgrowth in Certain Brain Areas Associated With Autism
Nature:  Brain scans spot early signs of autism in high-risk babies.
KMOV: Autism Study - Dr. Bob Mckinstry  
USA Today: Autism is detectable in brain scans long before symptoms appear, new study says
Medical News Today: Algorithm predicts whether high-risk babies will develop autism
Medical News Today: Cerebrospinal fluid: Potential biomarker for autism found
Philly Inquirer: Imaging study suggests possibility of predicting autism by age 1
Working mothers: Autism Breakthrough: Doctors Can Now Diagnose Babies with the Disorder, Before Symptoms Appear
New Zealand Radio (Hazlett): Detecting Autism Earlier : Audio Permalink 
NIH Brain Scans Show Early Signs of Autism Spectrum Disorder
Science Daily: Infant MRIs show autism linked to increased cerebrospinal fluid
Forbes: AI Predicts Autism By Comparing Babies' Brains
Science Times Korea: 자폐아, 두 살 때 미리 진단한다
Today Show: New test may be able to help diagnose autism as early as infancy : Video Permalink
WRAL: UNC study findings could help treat autism before symptoms begin
Spectrum News: Excess brain fluid may forecast autism in babies
UNC: Researchers link increased infant brain fluid to autism
UNC: VIDEO: UNC researchers unlock new clues in fight against autism : Video Permalink 
News UNC Healthcare: Infant MRIs show autism linked to increased cerebrospinal fluid
UPI: Autism linked to increased cerebrospinal fluid in infants
Psychology Today: Early Brain Over-Growth Is Indicative of Autism as Predicted
CTV News: Baby brain scans could predict autism before age 2: study
Futurism: We May Have Found a Way to Detect Autism Before Symptoms Show
Huffington Post Canada: Baby Brain Scans May Reveal Autism Risk, Study Says
The Scientist: Infant Brain Scans May Predict Autism Diagnosis
Science Recorder: Brain Scans Could Lead to Early Autism Diagnosis, Study Reports
Fox2NOW: Washington University researchers make autism breakthrough for high risk infants

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