The diagnosis of autism spectrum disorders is currently based on behavioral observations. As a result, many children with autism are not diagnosed until after their third birthday. This delay in diagnosis can be detrimental, as earlier interventions can significantly improve cognition, adaptive behavior and symptoms.
Naama Barnea-Goraly and her colleagues at Stanford University in California are seeking a better understanding of brain function in children when they show the first signs of autism, with the goal of identifying biomarkers that could facilitate early diagnosis and treatment. In addition, objective biomarkers for autism spectrum disorders may serve as tools for predicting the severity of symptoms.
Barnea-Goraly plans to use functional near-infrared spectroscopy (fNIRS), an optical brain-imaging technique, to investigate brain function in toddlers at risk for autism. fNIRS has several advantages over other imaging modalities, including safety, lower cost and lower sensitivity to movement, which is useful in studies of infants and toddlers.
The researchers plan to use the Modified Checklist for Autism in Toddlers to identify children at 15-20 months of age who show early signs of autism. This checklist screens for symptoms in toddlers who may later develop autism spectrum disorders, language disorders or developmental delay.
Barnea-Goraly and her team aim to determine whether neural activity at 18-24 months of age can be used to predict a diagnosis of autism by age 3. They may also investigate whether brain activity at this young age correlates with severity of symptoms later in life.