Image depicts patterns of brain activation in typically developing, ASD “Good” and ASD “Poor” language ability toddlers in response to speech sounds during their earliest brain scan (ages 12-29 months). Photo courtesy of UCSD News Center

A brain scan given to toddlers who are on the autism spectrum can predict the child’s future language development, researchers at the UC San Diego School of Medicine reported Thursday.

A study published in the online edition of the journal Neuron shows a strong relationship between irregularities in speech activation of the temporal cortex area of the brain and actual language ability in toddlers with autism spectrum disorder.

“We wanted to see if patterns of brain activity in response to language can explain and predict how well language skills would develop in a toddler with ASD before that toddler actually began talking,” said Eric Courchesne, a professor of neurosciences and co-director of the Autism Center of Excellence at UCSD.

Autism — said to be present in about out of 68 children in the U.S. — presents difficulties for scientists because it presents itself in a variety of ways, and can be hard to detect in very young children.

Courchesne said language is a prime example.

“Some individuals are minimally verbal throughout life. They display high levels of symptom severity and may have poor clinical outcomes,” Courchene said. “Others display delayed early language development, but then progressively acquire language skills and have relatively more positive clinical outcomes.”

Karen Pierce, associate professor of neurosciences and co-director of the Autism Center of Excellence, said it’s important to develop more and new biological ways to identify and “stratify” the ASD population into clinical sub-types so the patients can receive better, more individualized treatments.

The researchers used a functional magnetic resonance imaging device to measure the neural systems’ response to speech in 1- and 2-year-old toddlers, and compared them with assessments of the same children’s language skills two years later.

They said children with diminished or abnormal speech responses had poor language skills in the subsequent test. Those with responses closer to children who aren’t on the spectrum did better, the researchers said.

Scientists at the Veterans Affairs San Diego Healthcare System and University of Cambridge assisted with the study, which was funded by the National Institute of Mental Health, the National Foundation for Autism Research, Jesus College of Cambridge and the British Academy.

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