Neuroscience is truly the new frontier. Understanding what the brain does — and what it can tell us if we look — is offering up a plethora of ways not only to diagnose, but also to design treatments.
For evidence, look no further than a recent study by a team of researchers at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine at Yeshiva University. The researchers discovered that the brains of adolescents with severe autism react differently to certain audio-visual stimuli than children and adolescents without autism. This research could lead to more accurate diagnostic tools for the disorder.
Results of the research were just published in the Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders.
According to the abstract, “These data support that aberrant early sensory processing contributes to autism symptoms, and reveal the potential of electrophysiology to objectively subtype autism.”
It’s a matter of great concern. Early intervention is believed to be the optimal strategy with disorders of this type. And the need is great: the number of children with autism in the U.S. alone has ballooned to 1 in 68, based on statistics from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
“Ultimately, we’re on the road to developing measures of brain activity that will help to diagnose or recognize autism,” said Sophie Molholm, the study’s co-author and associate professor of pediatrics and neuroscience at Albert Einstein College of Medicine. “A major goal of autism research is to develop these kinds of measurement so we can diagnose this disorder as quickly as possible.”
Molholm believes the goal is to intervene so as to facilitate more positive outcomes.
“You want to be able to identify them at that stage so that you can begin early intervention,” Molholm explained.
The problem with autism is that its symptoms can be hard to isolate from other possible conditions. In addition, symptoms can vary from person to person, often leaving doctors in a quandary when it comes to a definitive diagnosis.
What do doctors look for now? Autism diagnostics include soliciting an extensive developmental history from parents, as well as observations by a doctor who observes the child. Common markers include repetitive behavior, presentation of a restricted interest in a single topic or subject, and impaired social communication.
What Molholm and her team hypothesized was that diagnosing the disorder would be made much easier and much more conclusive if autism could be deduced from reading brain waves.
The researchers gathered a group of 43 children and adolescents (ages 6 to 17) with previously-diagnosed autism. The subjects were asked to press a button every time they observed either an image (a red circle), a tone, or both an image and a tone simultaneously. While subjects attended to the tasks, the researchers observed and recorded brain activity via electro-encephalography.
Researchers found that children with severe autism reacted more slowly to auditory stimuli. To a lesser but still significant extent, they also responded more slowly to audio-visual stimuli, which requires the brain to process sight and sound simultaneously.
“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 symptom 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].”