To explain the results of this study, we first have to explain what white matter is.
What is White Matter?
The brain’s white matter contains millions of nerve fibers that connect different areas of the brain. These fibers enable the areas of the brain to communicate with each other efficiently and as a whole, which is also essential for proper neurodevelopment during childhood. Neurodevelopmental conditions reveal changes in this white matter, different from that of neurotypical peers.
First Study to Show Signs of Fragile X in Babies
For the first time, University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill School of Medicine used MRIs to show that babies with fragile X syndrome had less-developed white matter compared to infants that did not develop the condition. Imaging different sections of white matter from a variety angles can assist researchers in studying the brain circuitry necessary for proper neuron communication.
The study, published in JAMA Psychiatry, is the first one to show signs of Fragile X this early on in childhood development. Usually, Fragile X is diagnosed at age 3 or later, however brain differences can be identified well before this age, possibly as early as 6 months as revealed in this study.
Fragile X Syndrome is a genetic disorder with symptoms that include intellectual differences, social interaction difficulties, delayed speech, hyperactivity, and repetitive behaviors and speech. About one-third of individuals with fragile X meet the diagnostic criteria for autism spectrum disorder.
How This Discovery Helps…
Meghan Swanson, PhD, postdoctoral research fellow at the Carolina Institute for Developmental Disabilities at the UNC School of Medicine shares the hope of this study; that early diagnosis and intervention will be able to better aid children with fragile X and their families, as well as to enlighten drug development research or other therapies.
Research so Far…
So far, there have been drug clinical trials, but they haven’t been as impactful as researchers would like. This is primarily due to challenges in identifying good treatment outcome measures or biomarkers that reveal response to intervention. Without the ability to judge effectiveness of treatments, clinical trials can only do so much.
This Study Could Solve the Problem
The white matter differences that researchers observed in infant brains could be used as a marker for treatment effectiveness and measurable target for early intervention, according to Heather C. Hazlett, PhD, assistant professor of psychiatry at the UNC School of Medicine. A definite biomarker could dramatically increase the effectiveness of future clinical trials.
Where to go From Here?
According to Jason Wolff, PhD, former postdoctoral fellow at UNC-Chapel Hill and now assistant professor of educational psychology at the University of Minnesota, there is a lot of work left to do. Achieving the goal of infant intervention for fragile X would require researchers to expand newborn screening efforts.
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