by Cassandra R. Elias
A new study has confirmed prior studies showing that signs of autism can be detected in babies as young as six months of age.
This finding is significant as it could lead to more perfect diagnostic test, leading to earlier intervention and perhaps arresting of symptoms.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, autism and its associated disorders have been estimated to occur in at least 1 in 500 individuals of every race, nation, culture and economic background. Symptoms typically emerge between 18 months and 36 months of age.
The new study measured the brain activity of 104 infants aged 6-10 months as they watched an image of an adult’s face whose eyes moved from looking away from them, to directly at the infant, then away again. Researchers called these eye movements "dynamic eye-gaze shifts." They then assessed whether differences in brain activity in response to the eye-gaze shifts were related to autism developing in the same children at three years of age.
Children who did not develop autism showed large spikes in brain activity when they saw the "gaze shifts". Much smaller spikes in brain activity were detected in the infants who went on to develop autism, raising the prospect that autism could be identified earlier than is currently clinically possible.
However, this test was not 100% accurate. Some babies showing low brain activity spikes did not go on to develop autism and vice versa. As the groups overlap, there cannot be a simple and useful cut-off value to predict autism.
It should be noted that parents of a child with autism face a risk of almost one in five that their next child will also have the condition. Therefore, the study looked at patterns of brain activity in 54 of these "at risk" children, as well as 50 infants whose older siblings were not affected.
Developing and refining this type of test into something that can be routinely used to detect autism in infants is likely to take some time and will certainly require more research on larger groups of infants with autism and unselected healthy infants too.
The study was carried out by a collaboration of researchers from English, Canadian and Australian universities and was funded by the UK Medical Research Council. It was published in the peer-reviewed science journal, "Current Biology." To read more about the study, click here.
The researcher recruited a group of 104 infants - 54 at risk of autism because of a family history of the condition and 50 controls, with no family history of autism. The infants were followed from 6-10 months through to three years of age.
Study leader Professor Mark Johnson, from Birkbeck College, University of London said, "Our findings demonstrate, for the first time, that direct measures of brain functioning during the first year of life associate with a later diagnosis of autism, well before behavioural symptoms."
He continued to state that the, "Differences in the use of eye gaze to regulate social interaction are a well-recognized early feature in many children with autism from the second year of life. At present, it is these that will alert parents and professionals."
Dr. Johnson stressed the method was not foolproof and further research will be needed to refine testing.
Fellow researcher Chrisiina Swabey, chief executive of Autistica said, "The hope is this important research will lead to improved identification. Ultimately, the earlier we can identify autism, the better the outcomes will be."
What do you think of this important breakthrough?
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