Learning Disability Today
Supporting professionals working in learning disability and autism services

Autism can be seen in babies, research claims

Measuring brain activity in babies as young as 6 months could help to determine if they will develop autism in the future,research has found (27th January 2012).

Scientists at the Centre for Brain and Cognitive Development, Birkbeck, University of London, writing in the journal Current Biology, found that babies who go onto develop autism show different brain responses when someone looks at them or away from them in the first year of life.

However, the researchers stress that while the findings do suggest that direct brain measures might help to predict the future development of autism in infants as young as 6 months, the study is only a first step toward earlier diagnosis.

“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, Medical Research Council scientist and head of the Centre for Brain and Cognitive Development at Birkbeck, University of London. The researchers looked at 6- to 10-month-old babies at greater risk of developing autism because they had an older sibling with the condition. Passive sensors were placed 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.

Behaviours characteristic of autism emerge over the first few years of life and firm diagnoses are now made in children only after the age of 2. As a result, the vast majority of research on autism has concentrated on children 2 and up, who have already been diagnosed. We still know very little about the earliest appearing symptoms and warning signs,” Professor Johnson said.

Earlier studies have shown that the human brain shows characteristic patterns of activity in response to eye contact with another person. That response is a critical foundation for face-to-face social interactions and it is well known that older children diagnosed with autism show unusual patterns of eye contact and of brain responses to social interactions that involve eye contact.

This study reveals that the brains of infants who 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,” Johnson said. But this research does not provide a definitive check for autism; there were cases in which babies who showed these differences in brain function were not later diagnosed and vice versa. The scientists said the method requires further refinement, most likely in combination with other factors, to form the basis of a predictor accurate enough for clinical use in the general population. The research was funded by UK Medical Research Council and the BASIS funding consortium led by Autistica, a charity seeking to fund biomedical research to bring benefits to individuals and families affected by autism. Christine Swabey, CEO of Autistica, said: “Autism currently affects 1% of the UK population and the hope is that this important research will lead to improved identification and access to services for future generations. Ultimately, the earlier we can identify autism and provide early intervention, the better the outcomes will be in later childhood and adult life.”

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