A new study, published Wednesday in the journal Nature, asked the question “Does how long an infant spend looking at other people’s eyes prove to be an early marker of autism?”
The study, although small is scope, proved to be significant because it shows for the first time the possibility of identifying signs of autism within a few months of life. Teams of investigators from Marcus Autism Center, Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta and Emory University School of Medicine collaborated on the project. They followed 110 infants from birth to three years of age. The researchers, using specialized eye-tracking technology, traced eye movements at the rate of 30 times per second. The children were tested 10 times between 2-24 months of age.
Study findings suggest that infants between 2-6 months of age who spent less time looking at people’s eyes were later diagnosed with autism (although eye contact doesn’t appear to be entirely absent.) Also, they found that babies who showed the steepest decline in looking at people’s eyes over time went on to develop the most severe autism. What I found especially interesting was that this developmental difference was not present at birth but began occurring at two months of age. Investigators are working to see if the initial results withstand a larger sample size group, as well as to correlate eye-tracking measures with gene and brain growth data.
Second, and very interesting, are the initial findings of a drug trial of propranolol. In a study presented at the 2013 Society for Nueroscience annual meeting, investigators found that the medication can improve social behavior and cognition in teenagers and young adults with high functioning autism.
Researchers tested the drug on 20 high-functioning individuals with autism between 15-30 years of age. They recorded participants’ heart rates and perspiration to gage levels of anxiety and stress. They also engaged the participants in 1:1 conversation rating their sociability, and ability to stay on topic. Findings suggest propranolol may improve verbal and nonverbal behavior as well as lessen stress in social situations.
As the science of autism is constantly evolving, I’m amazed at the new directions and the dedication of the researchers. These are crucial developments because the earlier doctors can identify autism, the more effective treatments are thought to be. And, new medications on the horizon may help us solve the puzzle of autism. I encourage you to check out the new research and share your thoughts.