Israeli scientists find prenatal ultrasound can spot early signs of autism

Prenatal autism diagnosis could mean a course of treatment from birth instead of waiting until age 2 or 3.

 Left to right: Prof. Idan Menashe, Prof. Reli Hershkovitz and Ohad Regev. (photo credit: DANI MACHLIS / BGU)
Left to right: Prof. Idan Menashe, Prof. Reli Hershkovitz and Ohad Regev.
(photo credit: DANI MACHLIS / BGU)

It’s long been believed among experts on autism spectrum disorder (ASD) that neurological developmental disability could be diagnosed around a child’s second birthday. In a new study, Israeli researchers have found that autism, which affects one to two percent of the world, can be identified in a routine prenatal ultrasound in the second trimester.

The study by Ben-Gurion University of the Negev and Soroka Medical Center was published last month in the peer-reviewed journal Brain.

Researchers from the Azrieli National Centre for Autism and Neurodevelopment Research examined data from hundreds of prenatal ultrasound scans from the fetal anatomy survey conducted during mid-gestation. They found anomalies in the heart, kidneys, and head in 30% of fetuses who later developed ASD, a three times higher rate than was found in typically developing fetuses from the general population and twice as high as their typically developing siblings.

Anomalies were found more often in girls than in boys and the severity of the anomalies was also linked to the subsequent severity of autism.

A boy with autism stands in his room (credit: REUTERS)A boy with autism stands in his room (credit: REUTERS)

"Doctors can use these signs, discernable during a routine ultrasound, to evaluate the probability of the child being born with ASD," said Prof. Idan Menashe, a member of the Centre and the Department of Public Health in the Faculty of Health Sciences. "Previous studies have shown that children born with congenital diseases, primarily those involving the heart and kidneys, had a higher chance of developing ASD. Our findings suggest that certain types of ASD that involve other organ anomalies, begin and can be detected in utero.”

Prenatal diagnosis could lead to a course of treatment from birth instead of waiting until age 2 or 3 or even later. A previous study of the Centre found early diagnosis and treatment increased social ability by up to three times.