Nightly News   |  February 17, 2012

Brain scans show signs of autism

The results of a new autism study published in the American Journal of Psychiatry offer hope for an early diagnosis. NBC's Chris Jansing reports.

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>>> service.

>>> researchers working to unlock the mysteries of autism discovered something surprising by looking at the brain of infants. the study is preliminary but could lead to better treatments for children who haven't even shown symptoms of the neurological disorder that affects the ability to communicate and socialize. our report tonight from nbc's chris jansing .

>> reporter: tracy's 7-year-old son alex is autistic. she knew there was a 1-5 chance michael would be, too. autism typically isn't diagnosed until toddlers are 2 or 3, so the wait can be excrutiating.

>> we were extremely worried.

>> reporter: now results of a study published in the " american journal of psychiatry " offer new hope for early diagnosis. doing brain scans on babies at high risk . researchers found something totally unexpected. signs of autism at just 6 months.

>> the wiring of the brain by 6 months of age in those infant s that went on to be classified as having autism at 24 months of age, that wiring was different.

>> reporter: while findings are preliminary, experts at autism speaks , which helped fund the study, say early diagnosis could be a game-changer.

>> the goal is to be able to reduce the symptoms or even possibly prevent the syndrome from developing.

>> reporter: the next step will be more detailed testing. parents shouldn't rush to their pediatricians asking for scans on their baby's yet.

>> i think it's still probably several years away until we can use it with individual children.

>> reporter: for now, parents should watch for early development warning signs . 6-month-olds who don't smile, 1-year-olds who don't point, wave or basketball and babies with no words by 16 months. tracy's family has its answer now. michael's scan showed no signs of autism .

>> i actually started to cry when we finished it. it made me feel good as not just a mom, but mother of a child with autism that maybe this might help.

>> reporter: a glimpse of a future with the key to unlocking the mysteries of autism . chris jansing , nbc news, new york.