Researchers at Emory University are using eye-tracking technology to screen babies for signs of autism in the first months of their lives. The scientists are measuring the infants' ability to respond to social cues while watching videos and they're reporting results that could change the way autism is diagnosed and treated.
ATLANTA, GEORGIA, UNITED STATES (REUTERS) - In a darkened test room, Lucy Keane is watching videos, and while the videos play, researchers are watching Lucy. Using specialised hidden cameras, they are tracking her eye movements to search for signs of autism.
According to the Centers for Disease Control the number of children identified with autism spectrum disorder is on the rise, with 1 in 88 children identified in the U.S. alone, up from 1 in 150 back in 2000.
Lucy's mom Melissa recalls how she struggled to get a diagnosis for Lucy's older brother Patrick.
"I was met with a lot of resistance since my son was born, I kept saying that I don't feel that it should be this different but I didn't have a name for it," said Melissa Keane.
Patrick, now six years old, was diagnosed with Asberger's, an Autism Spectrum Disorder, at around the same time Lucy was born. Knowing that children with family members who have autism are 20 times more likely to develop the disorder themselves, Melissa enlisted Lucy in a clinical trial at the Marcus Autism Center in Atlanta.
Lead researcher Dr. Warren Jones says the trial is aimed at developing a new screening procedure, one that allows doctors to hunt for signs of autism before any symptoms become apparent.
"What this study really shows us is that it is possible to identify robust signs of social disability within the first months of life. And these are the earliest signs of autism ever identified," said Jones.
The initial trial used two groups of babies, one at high risk of developing autism and one at low risk. The babies came to the clinic every couple of months to watch videos embedded with visual markers while researchers used cameras to record their eye movements in order to gauge their attention span.
"We traced the way babies were looking at the world from the second month of life all the way to 24 months of life and even to 36 months of life when we confirmed the final outcome diagnosis for the children," Jones added.
And in the group of children who were later diagnosed with autism, the researchers were able to see a measurable decline in attention spans within the first two months of their lives.
Autism is usually diagnosed at between 4 and 5 years age, which is why Jones says this new screening process could prove to be a game changer.
"So our hope is by developing these types of tools, which are an objective measure of a baby's behaviour, you can speed that process of early detection and get more children more quickly to the kinds of intervention services that could really help in the long term," he said.
Services such as behavioural therapy or medication.
According to Melissa Keane, aside from the occasional tantrum, Lucy seems to be is developing normally. She says the trial has gone a long way in easing her worries.
"I do feel much better that we are in this study because I know that if there were things that they would be picked up on and so far they haven't flagged anything so that gives me huge peace of mind," Keane said.
Warren Jones and his team are now conducting a broader study in an attempt to fine tune their screening tool. He says this technology will one day give doctors a head start on diagnosing and managing autism… early enough to make a difference.