Eye Movement Test Could Help Earlier Diagnosis of Autism, Study Finds
Signs of autism spectrum disorder (ASD) can be seen as early as eighteen months of age, and reliable diagnoses can be given by the age of two. Early diagnosis can make all the difference in the trajectory of a child’s life. Research shows that an earlier start to therapy services leads to more overall improvement in areas of developmental delay, like communication, social skills, play skills, and self-help skills.
Now, researchers may have discovered another tool that could be used to detect ASD as early as possible: rapid eye movement tests.
Rapid Eye Movement Tests
Neuroscientists from the Del Monte Neuroscience Institute at the University of Rochester Medical Center conducted a series of experiments to track the eye movements of individuals with and without autism. Saccades are the rapid eye movements made when attention is shifted from one object to another, and in healthy individuals, saccades are rapid and accurate. They’re critical for navigating and interacting with our surroundings.
The brain area that controls these rapid eye movements is called the cerebellum, which is where the relevance to ASD comes in play. The cerebellum is known to play a role in motor control, emotion, and cognition, and previous studies have implicated that some individuals with ASD have an altered cerebellum structure.
In the study, subjects were asked to track a visual target that popped up in different locations on a screen. The way in which the study was designed, however, often led subjects to “overshoot” the target. Based on the study results, the researchers found that the brains in healthy individuals were able to correctly adjust eye movements as the task was repeated. Those with autism, on the other hand, continued to miss the target even after the task was repeated. These findings suggest that the sensory motor controls in the cerebellum were impaired in those with ASD.
“These findings build upon a growing field of research that show that eye movement could serve as a window into a part of the brain that plays a role in a number of neurological and development disorders, such as Autism,” John Foxe, director of the Neuroscience Institute, said in a press statement.
As research paves the way to a more thorough understanding of autism and how to better diagnose it, children will have the opportunity for earlier treatment options.
Brain Scans for Earlier Detection
In addition to eye movement tests, recent research has implicated brain scans paired with artificial intelligence (AI) as another option for earlier detection of ASD. In fact, a new study published in the journal Science Translational Medicine found that this method could predict which six-month old infants would go on to be diagnosed with autism as toddlers.
After analyzing the neural activity of fifty-nine infants in 230 different areas across the brain, the researchers identified 974 pairs of connections associated with autism. Putting these classifiers into an AI computer program enabled the team to predict which babies would later be diagnosed with ASD as toddlers with 96 percent accuracy.
“When the classifier determined a child had autism, it was always right,” researcher Robert Emerson, from the University of Carolina, said in a press statement. “But it missed two children. They developed autism but the computer program did not predict it correctly, according to the data we obtained at six months of age.”
Future of Diagnosis
Although these new autism diagnostic tools are exciting, it’s not likely that they would be used on their own to diagnose ASD in the future. It’s more likely that a combination of evaluations would be used to reliably confirm whether ASD was present in a child.
“I think the most exciting work is yet to come, when instead of using one piece of information to make these predictions, we use all the information together,” Emerson concluded. “I think that will be the future of using biological diagnostics for autism during infancy.”