Research reveals possible new way to diagnose autism early

Method based on the way the brain processes visual information

Research attempted to make a link between a particular autistic behaviour – unusual gaze pattern – and the way that a child’s brain develops in the first few years of its life.

Research attempted to make a link between a particular autistic behaviour – unusual gaze pattern – and the way that a child’s brain develops in the first few years of its life.

Wed, May 22, 2013, 01:00


Researchers have discovered a possible way to get a very early diagnosis of autism and related conditions in very young children.

It could provide a diagnosis years earlier than the typical age of five years, according to an Irish research clinician who led the work.

“The key with autism is early diagnosis,” said Dr John Foxe, professor of paediatrics and neuroscience at Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York City.

“This is potentially a biomarker that can identify kids [with autism spectrum disorders] earlier,” he said of the research findings which are published this morning in the European Journal of Neuroscience .

Prof Foxe was senior author on the paper which attempted to make a link between a particular autistic behaviour and the way that a child’s brain develops in the first few years of its life.

“It is well known that kids and adults with spectrum disorders have this unusual gaze pattern,” he said.

People without these conditions typically look directly at a person, but those with these disorders tend to avert their gaze.

This has been linked to social anxiety, but the research team wondered if “visual mapping” might be involved in this behaviour.

Visual mapping begins soon after birth as the eyes of an infant begin to work. The parts of the brain responsible for vision begin to form very precise maps that link the visual field with specific sections of the brain, the authors write in the journal.

Central vision takes up the greatest percentage of visual processing with peripheral areas away from the centre taking up a smaller amount of space.

Many autistic people are known to have mild motor control issues.

“If kids with autism have mild motor problems this could be related to not quite getting their eyes on a target,” Prof Foxe said.

They tested this by looking at electrical signals from the brain using electrodes applied to the scalp. They could show what amount of the brain was given to central vision compared to the periphery.

In the normal brain central vision takes up a large area, but the visual information processing in those with autism is more distributed, with increased space given to the peripheral view.

This approach could provide a new way to get a very early diagnosis, Prof Foxe said said. “One could imagine being able to intervene earlier.”