Peer-reviewed study by Ben Gurion U., Soroka Medical Center

Prenatal ultrasound can spot early signs of autism, Israeli research finds

Diagnosis from scans could enable starting treatment at birth rather than waiting years, possibly boosting the results

An ultrasound examination for a pregnant woman in Tel Aviv, on November 3, 2009. (Photo: Chen Leopold / Flash 90)
Illustrative: An ultrasound examination for a pregnant woman in Tel Aviv, on November 3, 2009. (Chen Leopold/Flash 90)

Routine ultrasound scans during the second trimester can spot early indications of autism spectrum disorder, enabling early intervention, according to a new study by researchers at Ben Gurion University and Soroka Medical Center.

Researchers from the Azrieli National Center for Autism and Neurodevelopment Research spotted anomalies in the heart, kidneys, and head in 30 percent of cases where the child later developed ASD, the university said in a statement Wednesday.

That’s a figure three times higher than typically found in fetuses in the general population.

The study was published last month in the peer-reviewed journal Brain, and will be discussed at the annual Israeli Meeting for Autism Research, scheduled for later this month.

Links have been found between fetal abnormalities and subsequent diagnosis with ASD, though data on the matter is still lacking. Whereas previous studies have shown that children born with congenital diseases, in particular those involving the heart and kidneys, had a higher chance of developing ASD, the current research showed it was possible to see the signs even before birth.

“Prenatal ultrasound is an excellent tool to study abnormal fetal development as it is frequently used to monitor fetal growth and identify fetal anomalies throughout pregnancy,” the researchers wrote.

“Doctors can use these signs, discernable during a routine ultrasound, to evaluate the probability of the child being born with ASD,” researcher Prof. Idan Menashe said in the university statement.

“Our findings suggest that certain types of ASD that involve other organ anomalies begin and can be detected in utero.”

A prenatal diagnosis of autism could mean that treatment begins at birth rather than waiting until age two, three, or even later as is the usual case, the statement said.

The Center has previously found that early diagnosis and treatment can significantly increase social ability in autistic children.

The team reviewed data from hundreds of prenatal ultrasound scans from a fetal anatomy survey conducted in mid-gestation drawn from the National Autism Database, which is supported by the Ministry of Innovation, Science and Technology and the Azrieli Foundation.

Anomalies were found more often in boys than in girls, the severity of the anomalies was found to be linked to the severity of the subsequent ASD.

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