Brain activity in infants may predict autism at age 3

Put an EEG cap on him!
Photo: © Violetstar | 
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In today’s post I’d like to highlight a study that came out earlier this year about brain activity in infants and risk for developing autism. The study, published in Current Biology in January 2012, had a design where half of the infants were considered to be at “high-risk” for developing autism because they had a sibling with autism, and the other half were low, or normal risk because they didn’t have family with autism. The researchers looked at EEG (brain activity) while infants aged 6-10 months were looking at pictures of people whose eye gaze was either looking at the infant, or away from the infant. You might know that attention to eye gaze is usually disrupted in people with autism, but that this abnormality doesn’t become apparent until about the second or third year of life. This study found that the pattern of brain activity in infants didn’t differ as much between the two different types of pictures for those infants considered at high risk for autism. Changing brain activity would indicate that the infant noticed there was something different about the two pictures, but that didn’t seem to be the case for high-risk infants. But here’s where the study becomes even more awesome. They then followed up all of those infants at age 3, and that same lack of change in brain activity also predicted developing autism (not just being at risk for developing it).

It’s not the end-all-be-all for predicting who will have a diagnosis of autism, however. The general pattern of results showed that brain activity could predict developing autism. But there are always exceptions. Plenty of infants that didn’t have much change in brain activity didn’t go on to develop autism, and vice versa. There are probably many other factors affecting the development of the disorder, and likely plenty of individual differences that might play a role in whether or not that pattern of brain activity predicts autism. But it is an exciting start and gives some hope for earlier detection of autism, and that leads to better intervention efforts for people who are going to need it most.

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