As diagnostic assessments and resources continue to improve, more cases of Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) are being diagnosed each year. It’s well-known that intervening as early as possible gives children on the spectrum the best chance at overcoming the developmental deficits associated with ASD. As such, scientists have been working to discover more ways to detect ASD as early as possible.
Generally, autism can be diagnosed as early as 18 months of age. However, researchers from the Sackler Institute for Developmental Psychobiology at Columbia University found a biomarker that may be able to predict a high risk of autism in 1- to 2-month old infants.
The research team, using data from the National Database for Autism Research (NDAR), analyzed brain scans of 71 high and low risk infants at either a 1-2 month period or a 9-10 month period. One set of scans was taken during a resting period of sleep and the other while the infants were presented with their native language.
According to the study findings, the infants with a high risk of ASD showed some particular patterns during sleep: higher levels of “noise” and an increased randomness in spontaneous head movements. The high-risk 1- to 2-month old infants also showed similar head movement signatures to each other while the low risk infants showed distinct head movement signatures during both the sleep and language conditions.
The researchers also found that specific head movement features during sleep predicted that the 1- to 2-month-old infants in the high-risk group would exhibit delayed early learning developmental trajectories. Even those high-risk infants without ASD diagnoses showed significantly lower functioning in childhood compared to the low risk infants, so the current research offers the potential to forecast which infants will show atypical developmental behaviors as toddlers.
Since the study is the first of its kind, additional research is needed to replicate and confirm the current findings. Nonetheless, the Colombia University team has brought an exciting possibility to the forefront of autism research.
Previous research has shown other innovative ways in which earlier autism detection might be possible. One team of researchers used brain scans and artificial intelligence to predict which 6-month-old infants would be diagnosed with ASD as toddlers with a 96 percent accuracy rate.
Just a couple weeks ago, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) announced research grants totaling nearly $100 million to support large studies on autism over the next five years. Our fingers are crossed that scientists will continue unearthing new methods for earlier ASD detection. Watch this space for updates.