Signs of autism 'can be detected in six-month-old babies' by measuring brain activity

Signs of autism can be detected in six-month-old babies by measuring their brain activity, research has shown.

Scientists say the test could help identify infants most at risk of developing the disorder later in life.

Currently autism is not officially diagnosed until after the age of two.

Condition: Children with autism could have the problem detected 18 months sooner by measuring brain activity at six months old. This would allow parents to alter the way they raise their children sooner

Condition: Children with autism could have the problem detected 18 months sooner by measuring brain activity at six months old. This would allow parents to alter the way they raise their children sooner

Many experts believe affected children would benefit if therapy could be started at an even younger age.

Autism is a lifelong developmental disability that impairs a person’s ability to connect socially and communicate.

An estimated 600,000 children and adults in the UK are affected by the condition, which covers a range of symptoms of varying severity.

The new research focused on six to 10-month-old babies believed to be at increased risk of autism because they had an older brother or sister with the disorder.

Sensors placed on the babies’ scalps measured brain activity while the infants were shown faces that switched between looking at them or away from them.

An association was seen between the responses and later diagnoses of autism.

The study suggests that the ‘autistic brain’ processes social information differently right at the start of life.

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.

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 the emergence of behavioural symptoms.

‘Differences in the use of eye gaze to regulate social interaction are already a well-recognised early feature in many children with autism from the second year of life and at present it is these increasingly well-documented ‘first signs’ that will alert parents and professionals to possible differences.

‘Future studies will be required to determine whether measurements of brain function such as those used in our study might one day play a role in helping to identify children at an even earlier age.’

The findings are published today in the journal Current Biology.

Prof Johnson stressed that the observed trend did not apply in all cases. Some babies that showed the unusual responses in brain activity were not later diagnosed with autism, and vice-versa.

He said: ‘The method would require 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 work was funded by the Medical Research Council (MRC) and a consortium led by the charity Autistica.

Christine Swabey, the charity’s chief executive, said: ‘Autism currently affects 1 per cent 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.’

Professor Christopher Kennard, from the MRC, 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.’