Early signs of autism detected at six monthsDifferent brain responses found
Early signs of autism can be detected in babies as young as six months old, according to new research.
A study found that babies who go on to develop autism show different brain responses when someone looks at them or looks away.
The scientists, from Birbeck College London, said that measuring brain activity in infants may help identify infants most at risk of developing autism, so they can be helped at an earlier age.
There are more than half a million people in the UK with autism, a lifelong developmental condition which affects how someone communicates and interacts with other people.
Currently, a diagnosis of autism in children is not made until after the age of two, when behavioural signs linked to the condition are more apparent.
The research team looked for early signs of the disorder in 104 infants aged between six and 10 months old. Half of the infants were known to be at higher risk of developing autism because they had an older brother or sister with the condition, and the remaining half were used as a control group for comparison.
It's already known that older children with autism can show different patterns of eye contact and brain responses when interacting with people.
So the scientists placed sensors on the babies scalps to monitor brain activity while they looked at pictures of faces that switched from looking at them to looking away from them.
The study found that babies at low risk of developing the condition showed a clear difference in brain activity when the pictures were switched. This was also true of those at higher risk of autism, but who didn't go on to develop the condition.
The difference in brain activity was much smaller in the babies who developed autism.
The scientists said the findings show that "the brains of infants who will go on to develop autism already process social information in a different way."
However, the researchers stressed that the method is not completely reliable and still needs to be "fine-tuned," as some of the babies who showed these differences in brain activity were not diagnosed with autism, and vice versa.
"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, who led the study.
"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."
The study is published in the journal Current Biology.
This article was published on Fri 27 January 2012
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