Autism spectrum disorders (ASDs) are difficult to diagnose before the age of 12 to 18 months because many early signs, such as not responding to one's name, aren't reliable in a child so young. Charles Nelson, PhD, director of the Laboratories of Cognitive Neuroscience at Children's Hospital Boston, hopes to change that.
"Our goal is to detect reliable risk markers for ASDs in the first year of life, and ultimately use what we find to develop new methods for early screening and diagnosis," says Nelson, who is also research director of Children's Division of Developmental Medicine. Such markers would allow very early interventions that may prevent the disorders from progressing, or perhaps even from developing in the first place.
Nelson's group is studying brain and behavioral development in infants at high risk for ASDs—having at least one older sibling on the spectrum—versus low-risk infants with no family history of the disorder. In addition to behavioral testing, the babies are shown images of their mother and a stranger while electrodes record their brain activity and their eye movements are tracked; in another test, they listen to familiar and unfamiliar language sounds while brain activity is measured.
Preliminary findings suggest that at 6 months of age, high-risk infants are less able to differentiate between native and non-native speech sounds, and at 6 and 12 months, respond more slowly to their mothers' faces than low-risk infants. Overall, their brains generate less of a particular type of brain activity that has been associated with integrating information. The team will follow the infants to 36 months to see which children will be diagnosed with autism, and how well their measures predict the disorder.