The brain responses of young infants may be used to identify individuals who are more likely to develop autism.
Research at Birkbeck, University of London’s “Babylab” shows that infants at risk of autism exhibit reduced brain responses to social cues before they are six months old, compared to infants with no family history of autism.
While diagnoses of autism are currently only made after the age of two, the findings suggest that direct brain measures might be used predict the future development of autism symptoms in children before the age of six months.
“At this age, no behavioural markers of autism are yet evident, and so measurements of brain function may be a more sensitive indicator of risk”, says Dr Sarah Lloyd-Fox who led the study. “The earlier that we can measure infants’ responses, the clearer an idea we can develop of how genes and the environment might be interacting, and this will help us to develop interventions which could support typical brain development.”
Working with four- to six-month-old babies with an older brother or sister with the condition, the researchers used optical imaging to register brain activity while the babies viewed videos of human actions or listened to human sounds, such as laughter and yawning, and non-human sounds like running water and toys rattling.
The research team is keen to stress that the study is only a first step towards earlier diagnosis of the disorder.