Early diagnosis of autism is key to ensuring the best possible outcome for children with the disorder. Unfortunately, children are not typically diagnosed with autism until they are around three years old. What's more, behavioral measures that might predict an autism diagnosis in high-risk infants generally aren't provided for babies younger than one year of age.
Charles A. Nelson and his colleagues at Children's Hospital Boston and Harvard Medical School are looking for neural markers of the disorder that could be detected between 3 and 12 months of age, long before more noticeable differences emerge in the child's natural behavior. They are using sophisticated neuroimaging tools to measure the brain's electric and metabolic activity, as well as behavioral assays such as eye tracking, to search for neural differences between high- and low-risk infants. Electroencephalography tests have already revealed that the two groups of infants show differences in brain activity when looking at familiar and unfamiliar faces. Measures of visual attention have also revealed differences between the two groups, such as in the infants' attention to their mother's eyes versus a stranger's eyes.
The team plans to track the development of language, social and cognitive abilities in children from 3 months to 3 years old, to determine which of the markers observable between 3 and 12 months can be used to predict an eventual autism diagnosis at 3 years of age.
Nelson and his team believe their findings will open the door to predicting high autism risk — and thus the opportunity for earlier interventions — in infants as young as 3 months old.