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UNC expands brain imaging study of infants at risk for autism

A study led by University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill researchers using brain imaging of infants to examine changes in their brains and behavior that may mark the onset of autistic symptoms is being substantially expanded after receiving an additional $3.25 million in funding.

The Infant Brain Imaging Study (IBIS), which involves a network of universities, was originally awarded $10 million in 2007 by the National Institutes of Health as an Autism Center of Excellence under the project title "A Longitudinal MRI Study of Infants at Risk for Autism."

The NIH recently awarded the project supplemental funding of $500,000 per year for five years and the Simons Foundation Autism Research Initiative provided $150,000 a year for five years.

"This is the first study that will prospectively measure, in the same group of infants, both the onset of autistic symptoms and brain enlargement that may co-occur at the end of the first year of life in children with autism," said Joseph Piven, M.D., the study's principal investigator and director of the Carolina Institute for Developmental Disabilities. Piven is also Sarah Graham Kenan Professor of Psychiatry and Pediatrics in the School of Medicine and in the psychology department of the College of Arts and Sciences.

The study builds on two key findings from researchers involved in it. The first, from UNC researchers, is that children with autism have larger brains from five to 10 percent larger at two years of age than children without autism and retrospective head circumference data suggests this enlargement or overgrowth starts about the end of a child's first year of life. The second finding, from behavioral researchers led by Lonnie Zwaigenbaum, M.D., from the University of Alberta in Edmonton, is that the onset of the social deficits associated with autism does not occur until the end of the first year.

"Once these brain and behavioral changes are identified, potential benefits might include the development of early screening measures for autism and a better understanding of the underlying brain mechanisms, which we hope will lead to treatments to prevent or reduce the problems that individuals with autism face," Piven said.

For the study, UNC heads a network of four data collection sites across the country: at UNC, the University of Washington in Seattle, Washington University in St. Louis and the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia. The project also includes a data coordinating center at the Montreal Neurological Institute in Canada.

The study will enroll 544 infants, aged 6 and 12 months, whose older siblings are autistic. At the start, they will receive behavioral assessments and magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) exams. The six-month-olds will then be tested again at 12 and 24 months of age, while the 12-month-olds will be retested at 24 months.

Piven said the additional funding will allow researchers to examine all 544 children at all time points, instead of focusing only on those that are most likely to develop autism.

He also said he welcomed the somewhat novel public-private partnership arrangement for the additional funding between the NIH and an outside funding agency.


Contact: Tom Hughes
University of North Carolina School of Medicine

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