According to a new study published today in American Journal of Psychiatry, problems with a specific brain circuit may explain why 7-month old infants who later develop autism exhibit delays in shifting their gaze and attention from one object to another.
Researchers focused on 97 children who underwent an eye-tracking test and brain scan at age 7 months, then a full clinical assessment at 25 months. The results showed that infants later diagnosed with autism were about 50 milliseconds slower in shifting their gaze from one object to another, as compared with those who did not develop autism.
University of North Carolina School of Medicine researchers who spearheaded the study found that gaze shifting in infants who did not later develop autism is linked to a particular neural circuit in the brain. Alternately, this link was not found in infants who later developed autism, which could be a factor in autistic children’s slower orientation to visual stimuli.
These new findings suggest that 7-month-olds who later develop autism display subtle yet detectable behavioral differences prior to diagnosis of the disorder. Difficulty shifting gaze and attention found thisearly may be a critical sign of the emerging developmental disability. Researchers hope this discovery could potentially help in identifying the disorderearly in a child’s life, and in turn provideearlier opportunities for intervention.
This development was released the same day as a new U.S. government report that says one in 50 children between the ages of 6 and 17 has some form of autism, compared with one in 88 only five years earlier.