Very early interventions for autism spectrum disorders (ASDs) have the potential to improve long-term outcomes by targeting emotion regulation, social learning and social communication. However, treatment studies currently rely upon long-term measures that are often far removed from the underlying targets of treatment and that are rather insensitive to short-term treatment effects. Measuring short-term outcomes would improve treatment research by speeding discovery and validation of early interventions, but such an approach is currently limited by diagnostic tools that are insensitive to small changes in behavior.
Stephen Sheinkopf and his colleagues at Women and Infants Hospital of Rhode Island and Brown University are using measures of physiological responses and visual attention that may be sensitive to short-term changes in response to treatment. These potential biomarkers are measures of the way that individuals perceive, respond to and pay attention to the environment. Thus, improved functioning in these basic areas should support adaptation and learning, and can be expected to precede long-term behavioral outcomes.
Sheinkopf and his team plan to test the reliability and validity of a battery of these potential biomarkers in relation to the level of severity of autism symptoms in 2- to 6-year-old children with ASD. They will observe the children’s physiological responses to social events, including heart rate and electrodermal reactivity (ie., activity of the sweat glands that is related to stress and ‘fight-or-flight’ responses of individuals). They also plan to study visual attention to people and social scenes using computer-based eye-tracking measures.
The result will be a potential battery of biomarkers that will measure emotion regulation, social responsiveness and social attention. The long-term goal of this work is to identify a set of measures that will be sensitive to early responses to treatments, and that can in turn support more rapid and efficient treatment trials for young children with ASD.