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.


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

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