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Atypical brain circuits may cause slower gaze shifting in infants who later develop autism

Date:
March 20, 2013
Source:
Children's Hospital of Philadelphia
Summary:
Children who are later diagnosed with autism have subtle but measurable differences in attention as early as 7 months of age, finds a new study. Results indicate a precursor to “sticky attention” problems seen in children with autism.

Splenium of the Corpus Callosum: The white matter fiber bundle that supports visual orienting in typically developing infants and may be implicated in the early development of autism spectrum disorders.
Credit: Jason Wolff, PhD, UNC

Children who are later diagnosed with autism have subtle but measurable differences in attention as early as 7 months of age, finds a study published today in the American Journal of Psychiatry. Researchers found that infants who went on to be diagnosed with autism are slower to shift their gaze from one object to another, compared to peers who did not receive the diagnosis. The scientists also identified specific brain circuits that seem to cause the slower response. The findings point to a problem with "sticky attention," a phenomenon observed in preschool and older children with autism, but not well studied before in babies at risk for autism.

The study was conducted by the Infant Brain Imaging Study (IBIS) Network, which includes researchers at the Center for Autism Research at The Children's Hospital of Philadelphia.

"This is a very exciting study, because the impairments in shifting gaze and attention that we found in 7-month-olds may be a fundamental problem in autism," said Robert T. Schultz, Ph.D. Director of the Center for Autism Research at CHOP and a co-author on the study. "These results are another piece of the puzzle in pinpointing the earliest signs of autism. Understanding how autism begins and unfolds in the first years of life will pave the way for more effective interventions and better long-term outcomes for individuals with autism and their families."

These findings suggest that 7-month-olds who go on to develop autism show subtle, yet overt, behavioral differences prior to the emergence of autism spectrum disorder (ASD). They were slower than both high-risk-negative and low-risk infants to orient or shift their gaze to objects that appeared outside their direct gaze (by approximately 50 millisceconds). Results also implicate a specific neural circuit (the splenium of the corpus callosum), which may develop differently in those at risk for ASD compared to typically developing infants, who show more rapid orienting to visual stimuli. The study concluded that atypical visual orienting is an early feature of later emerging ASD and is associated with a deficit in a specific neural circuit in the brain.

The study included 97 infants: 16 high-risk infants later classified with an ASD, 40 high-risk infants not meeting ASD criteria (i.e., high-risk-negative) and 41 low-risk infants. For this study, infants participated in an eye-tracking test and a brain scan at 7 months of age and a clinical assessment at 25 months of age.

The IBIS Network consists of research sites at UNC, The Children's Hospital of Philadelphia, Washington University in St. Louis, the University of Washington in Seattle, the University of Utah in Salt Lake City, and the Montreal Neurological Institute at McGill University, and is currently recruiting younger siblings of children with autism and their families for ongoing research. Funding support for the study was provided by the National Institutes of Health, Autism Speaks and the Simons Foundation Autism Research Initiative.


Story Source:

The above story is based on materials provided by Children's Hospital of Philadelphia. Note: Materials may be edited for content and length.


Journal Reference:

  1. Jed T. Elison et al. White Matter Microstructure and Atypical Visual Orienting in 7-Month-Olds at Risk for Autism. American Journal of Psychiatry, 2013; DOI: 10.1176/appi.ajp.2012.12091150

Cite This Page:

Children's Hospital of Philadelphia. "Atypical brain circuits may cause slower gaze shifting in infants who later develop autism." ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 20 March 2013. <www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2013/03/130320094419.htm>.
Children's Hospital of Philadelphia. (2013, March 20). Atypical brain circuits may cause slower gaze shifting in infants who later develop autism. ScienceDaily. Retrieved August 30, 2014 from www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2013/03/130320094419.htm
Children's Hospital of Philadelphia. "Atypical brain circuits may cause slower gaze shifting in infants who later develop autism." ScienceDaily. www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2013/03/130320094419.htm (accessed August 30, 2014).

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Atypical Brain Circuits May Cause Slower Gaze Shifting in Infants Who Later Develop Autism

Mar. 20, 2013 Infants at 7 months of age who go on to develop autism are slower to reorient their gaze and attention from one object to another when compared to 7-month-olds who do not develop autism, and this ... read more
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