UW Today

This is an archived article.

December 30, 2008

Washington infants needed for autism study looking at brain images, behavior

Like a picture, an image can be worth a thousand words, and University of Washington autism researchers would like to capture images of the growing brains of more than a hundred infants in Washington and six other western states as part of a study examining changes in children’s brains and behavior that may signal the onset of autistic symptoms.

The infants are needed for the Infant Brain Imaging Study, a $13.25 million national effort to unlock some of the mysteries of the developmental disorder that affects one in every 150 youngsters. Infants who have an older sibling with autism are at even greater risk for developing the disorder. One in 20 of these infants may develop autism.

The UW portion of the study is still looking for 84 six-month-old infants from California, Oregon, Washington, Montana, Idaho, Nevada and Alaska who have an older sibling who has been diagnosed with autism. It also needs 34 infants with typically developing older brothers or sisters.

Participants in the study will go through a preliminary screening interview, then a comprehensive developmental assessment and finally will have magnetic resonance imaging scans taken of their brains when they are 6, 12 and 24 months of age. Families can earn $225 for participating in the entire study. The study requires the imaging to be done in Seattle and money is available to cover the cost of travel for participants.

“This is the first study that will prospectively measure, in the same group of infants, both the onset of autistic symptoms and brain enlargement that may co-occur at the end of the first year of life in children with autism,” said Dr. Stephen Dager, principal investigator of the study at the UW and interim director of the university’s Autism Center.

The study builds on two recent key findings about autism. The first, found by researchers at the UW and the University of North Carolina show that children with autism have larger brains — 5 to 10 percent — at two years of age than children without autism. Retrospective head circumference data suggest this enlargement starts about the end of a child’s first year of life. The second finding indicates that the onset of the social deficits associated with autism do not occur until the end of the first year.

“Once these brain and behavior changes are identified, potential benefits might include the development of early screening measures for autism and a better understanding of the underlying brain mechanism of the disorder. This, we hope, will lead to treatment to prevent or reduce the problems facing individuals with autism,” said Annette Estes, co-principal investigator at the UW.

The Infant Brain Imaging Study is being conducted by a network of universities headed by the University of North Carolina. Other participants are the UW, Washington University in St. Louis and Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia. The University of Utah and Montreal Neuropsychiatric Institute at McGill University are involved in analyzing the imaging data. The project is being funded by the National Institutes of Health and the Simons Foundation Autism Research Initiative.

Families interested in participating in the study or those that want more information should contact the intake coordinator for the UW’s Autism Center at 800-994-9701 or ddrinfo@u.washington.edu . More information about the Infant Brain Imaging Study is available on the Web at http://ibis-network.org/default.html.

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For more information, contact Estes at (206) 543-7326 or estesa@u.washington.edu.