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According to a new study conducted by researchers at the Children’s Hospital in Boston, a simple brain wave test can be used to detect autism in babies as young as six months old. The large study focused on different ways to identify markers of autism in babies. The researchers found that an electroencephalogram (EEG) could predict whether an infant is at a high risk for autism with 80 percent accuracy. An EEG involves placing electrodes on the scalp to monitor and measure brain electrical activity. An EEG test is calculated using special algorithms that determine how well neurons in the brain communicate with one another.
The researchers at the Children’s Hospital separated 79 infants into two groups, “high risk” and “low risk,” based on whether they had a sibling with autism. Thirty-three of the babies had no family history of autism while the remaining 46 had an older sibling with an autism spectrum disorder. Twenty percent of siblings of autistic children will develop autism and another 50 percent will have autism-like symptoms: anti-socialism, repetitive behavior, etc.
The brain waves of the infants were tested at six months of age and again at nine months. The babies watched assistants blow bubbles while the researchers conducted the noninvasive and painless EEG.
The researchers were able to identify high-risk babies with an 80 percent accuracy. Researchers noticed result differences based on gender. When they conducted the EEG on babies at the six-months old mark, they predicted high risk girls with an 80 percent accuracy. This was not as high at all for boys that young. At nine months old, however, they were able to predict which boys fell in the high-risk group with an almost 100 percent accuracy. Girls at this age were only at a 60 percent accuracy which is not statistically significant.
The study showed that many siblings of autistic children have EEGs with small but recognizable differences. These tiny differences are the same as ones seen in the EEGs of children with autism.
The study is still early and it is not yet known if all children who have the EEG differences will develop autistic symptoms. More research needs to be completed to learn if children who do not have the differences could still develop autistic symptoms. In the future there may be a way to increase the accuracy level of the test. It this study proves successful in accurately predicting autistic symptoms in nine-month-olds, it will be a huge step for early detection.
“In this study, we have taken the first step in showing that there is definitive information in the electrical signals measured by EEG to distinguish normal controls from infants at high risk for developing autism,” William Bosl, a neuroinformatics researcher at the Boston Children’s Hospital said.
The only reliable way that physicians can currently detect and diagnose autism is by using a symptom checklist. The downfall is that the behavior cues used for this diagnostic tool are not developed in children until they are 2 years old. Even then, many autistic children are not diagnosed until even later in childhood. Early diagnosis of autism is the key to managing it and that is precisely why the current study at the Children’s Hospital could be extremely beneficial.