Measuring brain activity in infants as young as six months may help to predict the future development of autism symptoms.
Research conducted at the Centre for Brain and Cognitive Development, Birkbeck, University of London, and published in the January edition of Current Biology, shows that in their first year of life, babies who will go on to develop autism already show different brain responses when someone looks at them or away.
"The study is only a first step toward earlier diagnosis, but 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 the emergence of behavioural symptoms," said Professor Mark Johnson, MRC scientist and head of the Centre for Brain and Cognitive Development at Birkbeck.
The behaviours characteristic of autism emerge over the first few years of life and firm diagnoses are currently made in children only after the age of two. Professor Johnson's team looked to six- to ten-month-old babies at greater risk of developing autism because they had an older brother or sister with the condition. They placed passive sensors on the scalp to register brain activity while the babies viewed faces that switched from looking at them to looking away from them or vice versa.
The human brain shows characteristic patterns of activity in response to eye contact with another person, and that response is a critical foundation for face-to-face social interactions. Older children diagnosed with autism show unusual patterns of eye contact and of brain responses to social interactions that involve eye contact.
The new studies reveal that the brains of infants who will go on to develop autism already process social information in a different way. "At this age, no behavioural markers of autism are yet evident, and so measurements of brain function may be a more sensitive indicator of risk," Professor Johnson said.
However, in the study some babies who showed these differences in brain function were not later diagnosed and vice versa. The method will need refining, most likely in combination with other factors, if it is to form the basis of a predictor accurate enough for clinical use in the general population.
The study was co-led by Professor Tony Charman of the Centre for Research in Autism and Education at the Institute of Education, and was funded by the UK Medical Research Council and the BASIS funding consortium led by Autistica.
Professor Christopher Kennard, Chair of the MRC's Neuroscience and Mental Health funding board said: "This is a very interesting study which suggests that early signs of brain responses to eye contact can contribute to an earlier diagnosis for children at high risk of autism; crucial for ensuring that they receive appropriate care. An investment like this can improve our understanding of the basis of autism, which hopefully will lead to new ways of treating those affected in the future and so dramatically affect the quality of life for patients and their families."
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