Brain Injury in Premature Babies Linked to Increased Autism Risk

While doctors struggle to detect autism spectrum disorders (ASD) at an early age, new research published online in the Journal of Pediatrics shows low-birth-weight newborns with cranial abnormalities discovered by ultrasound scans just days after childbirth have an increased risk of developing ASD.

While doctors struggle to detect autism spectrum disorders (ASD) at an early age, new research published online in the Journal of Pediatrics shows low-birth-weight newborns with cranial abnormalities discovered by ultrasound scans just days after childbirth have an increased risk of developing ASD.

In their “Autism Spectrum Disorder Is Associated With Ventricular Enlargement in a Low Birth Weight Population” analysis, Tammy Z. Movsas, MD, MPH, medical director of the Midland County Department of Public Health and clinical assistant pediatrics professor at Michigan State University (MSU), and colleagues screened a cohort of 1,105 low-birth-weight infants for perinatal brain injuries with ultrasound scans during their first week of life in 1984. The researchers later screened more than half of the participants for ASD when they were 16 years old, and the study authors tracked a subset of participants with neonatal brain abnormalities — defined as ventricular enlargement, parenchymal lesions and intraventricular hemorrhage — through their 21st birthdays.

At the conclusion of the study, 14 cases of ASD were identified in 21-year-old participants who had displayed brain abnormalities as low-birth-weight babies, which supported the MSU researchers’ findings that the risk of positive ASD diagnoses in premature infants with cranial injury tripled in comparison to premature babies with no brain abnormalities, and low-birth-weight infants with ventricular enlargement were nearly seven times more likely to develop ASD than those without that particular white matter brain tissue injury.

“For many years, there’s been a lot of controversy about whether vaccinations or environmental factors influence the development of autism, and there’s always the question of at what age a child begins to develop the disorder,” Movsas said in a news release. “What this study shows us is that an ultrasound scan within the first few days of life may already be able to detect brain abnormalities that indicate a higher risk of developing autism.”

MSU epidemiologist and co-author Nigel Paneth added in the release that the analysis is “an important clue to the underlying brain issues in autism,” though he noted “further research is needed to better understand what it is about the loss of white matter that interferes with the neurological processes that determine autism.”

Abstract