Charles Nelson and his colleagues at Boston Children’s Hospital/Harvard Medical School investigated early brain development in infants at high familial risk for autism. Risk is defined as having an older sibling with the disorder. The researchers used electrophysiological (electroencephalogram or event-related potential) and metabolic (functional near-infrared spectroscopy) measures of neural responses to social stimuli such as faces, speech and language.
The high-risk infants showed early emerging differences, such as lower overall brain activity and power in the first year of life. This altered developmental trajectory among the high-risk infants continued through 24 months of age
Across different measures, Nelson’s group found atypical developmental patterns of organization in the cortex and specialization in both face and language processing in the high-risk infants. This finding has important implications for the early identification of infants at risk for autism.
Indeed, with the advantage of early neural markers, it is potentially possible to predict which high-risk infants will subsequently be diagnosed with autism. Preventive interventions are likely to be more effective at a stage when the brain is still highly plastic and undergoing experience-dependent developmental changes.