UW News

May 29, 2019

UW, collaborating institutions awarded $9.5 million for detecting autism earlier in childhood

UW News

Research scientist Tanya St. John works with a baby at the University of Washington Autism Center.

Research scientist Tanya St. John works with a baby at the University of Washington Autism Center.


A multicenter research team that includes the University of Washington Autism Center has received a five-year, $9.5 million grant to determine whether brain imaging can help detect infants who are likely to go on to develop autism spectrum disorder.  Led by Washington University and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, the research network of eight institutions received the grant from the National Institutes of Health’s National Institute of Mental Health.

The new grant supports the continued efforts of researchers in the Infant Brain Imaging Study, or IBIS, network. Scientists will scan the brains of 250 children who have an older sibling with autism, looking for differences that predict which high-risk children are more, and less, likely to develop the condition.

“Our studies have identified brain alterations in high-risk infants at 6 months of age that can predict a later autism diagnosis,” said Dr. Stephen R. Dager, professor of radiology at the University of Washington School of Medicine and principal investigator at the UW. “Now we are going to work with a new group of families to confirm whether our initial findings can be replicated.”

Infant siblings of children with autism have a 20 percent chance of developing autism spectrum disorder themselves – a much higher risk than children in the general population.  Researchers believe that if brain scans can accurately identify which infants are at highest risk, then careful assessment over the first two years of life could detect behavioral symptoms as soon as they emerge. This would allow interventions to begin sooner and improve those children’s outcomes.

IBIS researchers published initial findings in 2017, which showed that magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) correctly identified 80% of babies who went on to be diagnosed with autism at age 2. They also correctly predicted more than 90% of babies who subsequently did not receive that diagnosis.

“These imaging findings are very exciting and, if replicated, can allow much earlier diagnosis of autism,” said Dager.

The UW Autism Center, part of the Center on Human Development and Disability, has long studied the signs of autism and the effectiveness of intervention strategies, and has been involved with IBIS since its inception.

“We have learned so much from the children and families in the IBIS studies. We understand much more about the way autism symptoms unfold in infants with autism risk, starting with subtle early sensory-motor signs and developing into social communication and repetitive behavior in the second year of life,” said Annette Estes, director of the UW Autism Center, research professor of speech and hearing sciences, and co-lead investigator of the IBIS study in Seattle. “These brain findings in the first year of life could be game-changers if the findings hold up. They could allow us to approach autism in a new way, before symptoms emerge.”

As parents from around the country brought younger and younger children to be evaluated at the UW, the UW Autism Center established its Infant and Toddler Clinic in spring 2017. The clinic provides evaluations for infants and toddlers up to 24 months of age, along with psychologists and behavior analysts to create a treatment plan with clinic- and home-based activities — just as would happen with older children.

“IBIS families told us how valuable it was to have assessments over the first years of life so they could be sure that any signs of autism would be caught as soon as possible,” said Tanya St. John, a clinical psychologist at the UW Autism Center. “It has been gratifying to bring these services to families in the community, including people who may not have a family history of autism but who just have questions about their infant’s development. Our team has been able to see these young children quickly and get their parents the information and support they need.”

For the new study, babies will undergo MRI scans while asleep. Those tests will be performed when the infants are 6 and 12 months old, to analyze both the brain’s structure and its functional connections. Infants also will be evaluated for language development, repetitive behaviors, social responsiveness and other behaviors that may, in the future, help understand how autism unfolds in the first year of life.

“Our goal is to improve outcomes for infants at highest risk,” said Estes. “Intervention that starts before children fall far behind in development, and perhaps before symptoms become clear, might prevent many problems faced by families today.”

Along with the UW, Washington University and the University of North Carolina, other institutions involved are Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, the University of Minnesota, New York University, the University of Alberta and McGill University. Families participating in the study must travel to the IBIS screening site nearest their hometowns. The imaging sites are located in Seattle, St. Louis, Philadelphia, Chapel Hill, N.C., and Minneapolis-St. Paul.

To learn more about the IBIS study in Seattle, contact uwautism@uw.edu.


Adapted from a Washington University news release.