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Infant Neural Sensitivity to Dynamic Eye Gaze Is Associated with Later Emerging Autism

Posted Jan 26 2012 8:25pm

A study out today is causing much discussion. Infant Neural Sensitivity to Dynamic Eye Gaze Is Associated with Later Emerging Autism is by researchers from the UK, Canada and Australia:

1 Centre for Brain and Cognitive Development, Birkbeck College, University of London, London WC1E 7HX, UK
2 Department of Psychiatry, McGill University, Montreal, Quebec H3A 1A1, Canada
3 Olga Tennison Autism Research Centre, School of Psychological Science, La Trobe University, Bundoora, Victoria 3086, Australia
4 Centre for Research in Autism and Education, Institute of Education, University of London, London WC1H 0AL, UK
5 Institute of Psychiatry, King’s College London, London SE5 8AF, UK
6 Autism Research Centre, University of Cambridge, Cambridge CB2 8AH, UK

In Study finds early signs of autism in baby brains , Fox News and Reuters report the study:

Children who develop autism already show signs of different brain responses in their first year of life, scientists said on Thursday in a study that may in the future help doctors diagnose the disorder earlier.

British researchers studied 104 babies at 6 to 10 months and then again at 3-years-old, and found that those who went on to develop autism had unusual patterns of brain activity in response to eye contact with another person.

The BBC in their story Autism: Brainwaves ‘show risk from age of six months’ , notes:

Prof Johnson said: “It is important to note it is not a 100% predictor. We had babies who flagged up warning signs who did not develop autism.”

There were also babies who did develop autism who had low-risk brainwaves. The test would need to be more accurate before it was used routinely.

And this is a big reason I’d like to see the actual study. How accurate was this measure?

I would point out that there are children who show very clear behavioral signs of autism before age 1, something which the news stories don’t seem to be capturing.

Autistica , who helped fund the research, included this in their comment on the study:

In their first year of life, babies who will go on to develop autism already show different brain responses when someone looks at them or away. Although the researchers are careful to say that the study is only a first step toward earlier diagnosis, the findings do suggest that direct brain measures might help to predict the future development of autism symptoms in infants as young as six months.

“Our findings demonstrate for the first time that direct measures of brain functioning during the first year of life associate with a later diagnosis of autism – well before the emergence of behavioural symptoms,” said Professor Mark Johnson, MRC Scientist and head of the Centre for Brain and Cognitive Development at Birkbeck, University of London.

“Our findings demonstrate for the first time that direct measures of brain functioning during the first year of life associate with a later diagnosis of autism – well before the emergence of behavioural symptoms,” said Professor Mark Johnson, MRC Scientist and head of the Centre for Brain and Cognitive Development at Birkbeck, University of London.

I have not seen nor read the paper yet. The abstract is available and they give “highlights” of the study:

Highlights
Family risk for autism confers subtle differences in brain function in infants
Atypical ERPs in infants when viewing eye gaze data associates with later autism diagnosis
Robust prediction of autism will require an understanding of risk and protective factors

and the summary:

Summary

Autism spectrum disorders (henceforth autism) are diagnosed in around 1% of the population [1]. Familial liability confers risk for a broad spectrum of difficulties including the broader autism phenotype (BAP) [2,3]. There are currently no reliable predictors of autism in infancy, but characteristic behaviors emerge during the second year, enabling diagnosis after this age [4,5]. Because indicators of brain functioning may be sensitive predictors, and atypical eye contact is characteristic of the syndrome [6,7,8,9] and the BAP [10,11], we examined whether neural sensitivity to eye gaze during infancy is associated with later autism outcomes [12,13]. We undertook a prospective longitudinal study of infants with and without familial risk for autism. At 6–10 months, we recorded infants’ event-related potentials (ERPs) in response to viewing faces with eye gaze directed toward versus away from the infant [14]. Longitudinal analyses showed that characteristics of ERP components evoked in response to dynamic eye gaze shifts during infancy were associated with autism diagnosed at 36 months. ERP responses to eye gaze may help characterize developmental processes that lead to later emerging autism. Findings also elucidate the mechanisms driving the development of the social brain in infancy.

Here is Figure 1 from the article, which I admit in this version is too small to be very illustrative:

But the figure caption gives some more details about the actual study.

Figure 1. Association between Infant ERPs in Response to Eye Gaze and Autism Outcomes(A) Participating families first visited the lab when their infants were 6–10 months of age. Electrophysiological recording was done during this visit. Infants were prepared for the EEG session.(B) Electrophysiological response to gaze shifts over occipitotemporal channels.(C) Around 2 and 3 years of age, the same infants were tested by an independent team using several measures including the ADOS, a semistructured observational measure of autism-related characteristics. Based on information from all visits, combined with expert clinical judgment, infants in the at-risk group were classified as having ASD or not.(D) Controlling for age at the first visit, significant condition × risk-group interactions were observed for the amplitude of the P400 [F(1,92) = 6.7, p = 0.01]; planned post hoc tests focused on within-group difference between response to direct versus averted gaze controlling for age at baseline and developmental level at 36 months. Estimated mean differences between responses to gaze toward versus away are displayed for each group (standard error bars are displayed). Findings suggest that differentiation between gaze toward versus away was reliable in the both the control group (p < 0.001) and the at-risk without ASD group (p = 0.04). By contrast, the at-risk group that developed ASD showed no differentiation (p = 0.67) nor did the subgroup that developed early and persistent symptoms (p = 0.27). Findings from static face and face versus noise contrasts are presented in Figure S1 and Table S1.

  1. Bre:
    We use right brain/ left activities in our program for students with Autism. It is amazing to see student ability to calm down & learn when both sides of the brain are stimulated. It would be interesting to see results of these children & eye gaze later in life.

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