Signs of autism 'can be detected in six-month-old babies' by measuring brain activity
Scientists have detected signs of autism in babies as young as six months, leading to hopes of a test for the disorder.
They made the breakthrough by measuring brain activity and believe it could lead to identifying those infants most at risk at a much earlier stage.
Around one in 100 children develops the disorder but symptoms do not usually become apparent until the second year of life.
Condition: Children with autism could have the problem detected sooner by measuring brain activity at six months old. This would allow parents to alter the way they raise their children sooner
Earlier diagnosis, it is hoped, could
lead to ways of ‘coaxing’ the brain to develop in different ways to
counter problems caused by the condition.
An estimated 600,000 children and adults in the UK are affected by
autism, or autistic spectrum disorder, with genetic factors playing a
ASD is an umbrella term for a range of developmental disorders,
including Asperger’s syndrome, which have a lifelong impact on the
ability to interact socially and communicate. The latest research
focused on six to ten-month-old babies with a sibling affected by the
Parents of a child with autism face a risk of almost one in five that their next child will also have the condition.
The study looked at patterns of brain activity in 54 of these ‘at risk’
children, as well as 50 infants whose older siblings were not affected.
Sensors placed on their scalps measured brain activity via electrical
signals as they were shown faces that switched from looking at them or
away from them.
The intensity of the electrical activity in certain areas was diminished
in children at risk of autism. This suggested they were already
registering unusual patterns of eye contact and social interaction.
SO WHAT IS AUTISM
The diagnosis of autism is often referred to as autism spectrum disorder.
While all people with autism share three main areas of difficulty – social communication, social interaction and social imagination – their condition will affect them in different ways.
Some are able to live relatively normal everyday lives, while others will require a lifetime of specialist support.
Most scientists agree that autism is a genetic disorder. In rare cases, it has been associated with birth defects caused by agents such as heavy metals and pesticides.
But an increase in diagnoses following the 1990s led to a rise in the belief that children were developing autism after they were born.
The fact that the condition usually develops gradually – and in some cases toddlers appear to develop more normally and then regress – helped propagate this theory.
The most notable controversy in recent times was the claim that the MMR vaccine caused autism.
However, this theory has been discredited by evidence showing that this is biologically implausible.
Researchers said 17 children in the ‘at risk’ group were diagnosed with autism at the age of three.
Study leader Professor Mark Johnson, from Birkbeck College, University
of London, said: ‘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 behavioural
‘Differences in the use of eye gaze to regulate social interaction are a
well-recognised early feature in many children with autism from the
second year of life. At present, it is these that will alert parents and
But he stressed the method was not foolproof and further research was needed to refine the testing.
It would also be important to assess why some children at high risk who
showed early signs of unusual responses did not develop autism, added
He said many parents wanted to know as early as possible if their
children were at risk and the researchers were carrying out a pilot
study targeting babies of a year old to examine potential ways of
‘The brain is plastic at an early age, it should be easier to coax
different pathways into doing something that leads to children having
the kind of social interactions which come more naturally to other
people,’ said the professor.
The work was funded by the Medical Research Council and a consortium led by charity Autistica.
Christine Swabey, Autistica’s chief executive, said: ‘The hope is this important research will lead to improved identification.
‘Ultimately, the earlier we can identify autism, the better the outcomes will be.’
Professor Christopher Kennard, from the MRC, said the study published in the journal Current Biology was ‘very interesting’.
It could ‘contribute to an earlier diagnosis for children at high risk,
crucial for ensuring that they receive appropriate care,’ he said.