Researchers are hoping that by using a common tool for measuring of brain activity in a new way, they may be one step closer to identifying whether a child is a greater risk for autism.
"We haven't diagnosed autism at this point," says William Bosl, Ph.D., lead author and a research scientist at Children's Hospital Boston. But he says by using an electroencephalogram and new, sophisticated computer programs to analyze the EEGs, he and his co-authors were able to correctly identify with 80% accuracy, which babies were at higher risk for autism and which were not.
Scientists have known for quite some time now that the earlier a child with autism gets therapy, the easier it is to improve language and behavioral skills. In 2007, the American Academy of Pediatrics recommended that all children be screened for autism at the ages of 18 months and 24 months. Here researchers are trying to find markers for autism before a child begins showing signs of autism.
In a new study published Tuesday in the journal BMC Medicine, scientists studied 79 infants. 46 babies had a brother or sister with known autism, which means they themselves are at an increased risk for the neurodevelopmental disorder that affects about one in 110 children according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The sibling of a child with a confirmed diagnosis of autism has a 1 in 5 chance of also developing the disorder. These infant siblings were compared with 33 infants with no known family history of autism.
The babies were given EEG's at 6, 9, 12, 18 and 24 months of age. Researchers strapped a net of 64 electrodes all over a baby's head while it was sitting in its mom's lap and a research assistant was blowing bubbles to hold the child's attention. The electrodes measured actual firings of neurons. The EEG technique is much easier to use because the baby can be awake and moving and wiggling around, says Dr. Geraldine Dawson, chief science officer for the advocacy group Autism Speaks, which partially funded this research. Other brain imaging technologies like magnetic resonance imaging would require a baby to be asleep or sedated because they have to be completely still while the test is being done. "Nobody wants to sedate a healthy infant," says Dawson.