HealthDay News — Sophisticated imaging tests could provide clues to how well a child with an autism spectrum disorder may develop language skills, possibly as early as when the child is just a year old, a new study suggests.

“We discovered that at the very first signs of autism in infants and toddlers, language-important brain regions already displayed striking differences between those who later had good versus poor language outcomes,” said study co-author Eric Courchesne, PhD, a professor of neurosciences and co-director of the Autism Center of Excellence at the University of California, San Diego.

His team used functional MRI (fMRI) scans to look at the brains of 103 children while they listened to a spoken story. The children were approximately 1 to 2 years old. The study authors noted that this is the youngest age that children can be identified as being at-risk for autism.

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When the children were 3 to 4 years old, their ability to understand and express spoken language was assessed.

Sixty of the children had been diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder. Twenty-four of those children scored considerably below average in both language areas, and were classified as having poor language development. The other 36 children with an autism spectrum disorder performed at or above average on at least one of two measures of language ability.

The other children included 24 typically developing and 19 with a learning disability or delayed development, the study authors said.

The researchers then compared the children’s brain images to their language scores. The language-related brain regions in children with an autism spectrum disorder who had good language development resembled those regions in typically developing children. But children with an autism spectrum disorder with poor language development had reduced or abnormal activity in those regions, they reported in the journal Neuron.

This research is the first to identify these brain differences so early in children, which may open up advanced research in treatment, the scientists said.


Lombardo MV, et al. Different Functional Neural Substrates for Good and Poor Language Outcome in Autism. Neuron. 2015; doi: 10.1016/j.neuron.2015.03.023.