By developing better diagnostic tools for kids with autism, researchers may soon be able to offer effective therapeutic interventions to help the young brain learn.

In a new study at the University of Washington's Institute for Learning & Brain Sciences, investigators watched brain responses among two-year-old children with autism spectrum disorder to words presented to them. Those responses, recorded with sensors in an elastic cap, predicted later linguistic, cognitive, and adaptive skills among those children at ages four and six.

Published Wednesday in the journal PLOS ONE, the findings are among the first to show the promise of brain imaging to forecast mental abilities of children with the condition.

"We've shown that the brain's indicator of word learning in 2-year-olds already diagnosed with autism predicts their eventual skills on a broad set of cognitive and linguistic abilities and adaptive behaviors," Patricia Kuhl, co-director of the Institute, told reporters. "This is true four years after the initial test, and regardless of the type of autism treatment the children received."

In the study, the toddlers — including 24 diagnosed with autism and 20 who were not — listened to a mix of words familiar and unfamiliar to them, while wearing the sensors. The children with autism were then divided into two groups based on the severity of their social impairments, with the researchers taking a closer look at their brain responses. Those lower on the autism spectrum with lesser social impairment showed responses more typical to those of children without the condition, responding with gusto to known words in a language area located in the temporal parietal region on the brain's left side.

The evidence showed similarity between children at that end of the autism spectrum to children who don't have the condition. By contrast, children with the most severe symptoms of autism showed responses more broadly over the right hemisphere of the brain, which is unseen in typical children of any age.

"We think this measure signals that the 2-year-old's brain has reorganized itself to process words," Kuhl said. "This reorganization depends on the child's ability to learn from social experiences."

However, the promise of identifying a diagnostic tool for predicting future symptoms of the disorder is still a ways off, she said.

The researchers then quantified the children's language skills, cognitive abilities, and social and emotional development, at the ages of two, four, and six. Those with autism received treatment during the study, improving as a group on behavioral tests. But there was significant variability among the children, and those with lesser symptoms at two mproved the most by age six, despite the best therapeutic efforts of clinicians.

In related work, Kuhl has found that a higher degree of social interaction accelerates language development in babies, with infants learning language by using social cues — tracking an adult's eye movements to learn the name of a new object, for example. Thus, an inclination toward others is essential to the development of the human brain, researchers believe. In children with autism, social impairments impede this learning process, and kids focus more on objects and abstractions, as opposed to other people, the most dynamic and arguably important aspects of their immediate environment.

"Social learning is what most humans are about," Kuhl said. "If your brain can learn from other people in a social context you have the capability to learn just about anything."

Kuhl hopes the new research will eventually afford clinicians the ability to measure autism at the age of 12 months or younger, allowing the opportunity to shape the young brain at the most amorphous stages, with the highest levels of neural plasticity.

The study is available online.

Source: Munson J, Estes A. Early Brain Responses To Words Predict Developmental Outcomes In Children With Autism. PLOS ONE. 2013.