Are Brain Waves The Key To Early Accurate Autism Testing?

Electro-encephalography testing measures brain activity in response to stimuli

According to a new study published Monday in the Journal of Autism and Developmental Disabilities, the brains of children and adolescents with severe autism react differently to specific types of audio-visual stimulation than those without autism spectrum disorders (ASD). These findings could lead to more accurate and objective means of diagnosing autism than the current behavioral methods of evaluation. Researchers also hope this can contribute to earlier diagnoses, as more and more research supports findings that early intervention and therapy are most effective.

This newest development in the search for reliable autism biomarkers comes from researchers at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine at Yeshiva University. Scientists there found that a non-invasive brain wave test shows promising signs for diagnostic screening for autism.

“Ultimately, we’re on the road to developing measures of brain activity that will help to diagnose or recognize autism,” said Sophie Molholm, associate professor of pediatrics and neuroscience at Albert Einstein College of Medicine and co-author of the study. “A major goal of autism research is to develop these kinds of measures so we can diagnose this disorder as quickly as possible.”

The team of Yeshiva researchers set out to test their theory that observing unusual sensory perception of autistic individuals via brain wave activity could be an accurate diagnostic tool. A pool of 43 children and adolescents between the ages of 6 and 17 with diagnosed autism were asked t complete tasks while undergoing an electro-encephalography test. Fitted with an electro-cap that records brain wave activity and processing speed through 70 sensors, each participant was asked to press a button every time they observed an image, a sound, or both simultaneously.

The subjects with the most severe autism responded more slowly to stimuli, particularly to auditory and audio-visual stimuli. While the study focused on older children, Molholm said that the results suggest that the same kinds of brain wave activity could be observed in younger children. The tests also indicate that common autism symptoms can be more accurately identified via biomedical markers such as brain wave activity.

This study comes on the heels of exciting research in the field of genomics, trace mineral ratios, and ongoing work to develop blood tests to screen for autism earlier and more reliably.  Currently, diagnoses generally begin at the age of three, even though symptoms can start to appear as early as six months. Because ASD presents differently in every individual and infants develop at different rates, often outgrowing delays.  Evaluations are also largely based on behavioral symptoms and can be subject to personal interpretation, leaving plenty of room for error.

“One of the things that one would hope is that you can take measures of brain activity that we find to be associated with these certain clinical symptoms and apply them at very early developmental stages and determine if it is likely that this person will go on to develop autism, for example,” Molholm said. “Or we can better understand what their strengths and weakness are, so we know what to target [with treatment].”

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