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Peering Into the Womb: Fetal Brain Scans Reveal Autism Clues

Scientists used MRI scans of children with isolated fetal ventriculomegaly and found evidence supporting an association between the condition and autism traits. The study followed two groups of children, those with a normal fetal brain MR assessment and those with isolated ventriculomegaly, and conducted developmental assessments at ages 2 and primary school age. The results could improve family counseling, early identification, and intervention. However, further research is needed to confirm these findings in a larger population and to better understand the susceptibility to developing autism in children with antenatally-diagnosed isolated ventriculomegaly or other common fetal brain anomalies. Credit: King’s College London

Researchers have used MRI brain scans of children with isolated fetal ventriculomegaly to measure neurodevelopment and investigate the presence of autism traits at school age.

In a paper published in the journal Nature Communications<em>Nature Communications</em> is a peer-reviewed, open-access, multidisciplinary, scientific journal published by Nature Portfolio. It covers the natural sciences, including physics, biology, chemistry, medicine, and earth sciences. It began publishing in 2010 and has editorial offices in London, Berlin, New York City, and Shanghai. ” data-gt-translate-attributes=”[{“attribute”:”data-cmtooltip”, “format”:”html”}]”>Nature Communications, King’s College London researchers from the Center for the Developing Brain have discovered evidence supporting an association between isolated ventriculomegaly and autism traits.

The study followed two groups of children, one with a normal fetal brain MR assessment and those with an antenatal diagnosis of isolated ventriculomegaly, with a developmental follow-up assessments at 2 years of age and primary school age.

“While this approach offers only a partial indicator of future outcomes, better prediction may have important implications for the long-term support of families. For example, early identification means that parents can be counseled on potential future outcomes and increased awareness of the onset of autism traits in their child would allow earlier and faster access to supporting programs.”
Dr. Vanessa Kyriakopoulou, Senior Research Associate in Neuroscience & Neuroimaging

Participating children were initially scanned as fetuses and then tested with a range of developmental measures including IQ, autism traits, sustained attention, neurological functioning, behavior, executive function, sensory processing, coordination, and adaptive behaviors.

Fetal ventriculomegaly is the most common antenatally-diagnosed brain abnormality and is diagnosed when the lateral ventricles measure larger than normal on antenatal ultrasound or MR imaging.

This study demonstrates an association between this most common developmental fetal brain anomaly and autism traits. The results may improve counseling for families and aid early identification, support, and intervention, with further research warranted to confirm initial findings within a larger population.

“There is a clear need for more long-term data combining high quality brain imaging with long term developmental follow up in children with antenatally-diagnosed isolated ventriculomegaly or indeed with other common fetal brain anomalies to improve our understanding about the susceptibility of developing autism.”
Professor Mary Rutherford, Perinatal Imaging & Health

Reference: “Characterisation of ASD traits among a cohort of children with isolated fetal ventriculomegaly” by Vanessa Kyriakopoulou, Alice Davidson, Andrew Chew, Nidhi Gupta, Tomoki Arichi, Chiara Nosarti and Mary A. Rutherford, 21 March 2023, Nature Communications.
DOI: 10.1038/s41467-023-37242-0

The authors gratefully acknowledge the families who participated in this study.

This study was supported by the Medical Research Council, the Wellcome Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) Centre for Medical Engineering at Kings College London, and the National Institute for Health and Care Research.

The Centre for the Developing Brain is part of the School of Biomedical Engineering & Imaging Sciences and has advanced MR imaging facilities, including a novel fetal imaging capability and a new dedicated MR imaging suite sited within the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit at St Thomas’ Hospital.

Source: SciTechDaily