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Research Opens Door to Early Diagnoses and Treatment of Autism

EEG baby

Bill Bosl's research could open the door to preventative interventions for children at risk of developing autism. Photo courtesy of Michael Carroll, Boston Children's Hospital.   

Cutting-edge research by USF’s William Bosl could reveal the first signs of autism and lead to treatments that limit or even prevent the disorder’s symptoms.

“We are trying to detect the emerging disorder before a child begins to show symptoms of autism,” said Bosl, director of USF’s Health Informatics program and assistant professor of health informatics, of an ongoing study he’s heading. The study analyzes the brain activity of about 75 kids under 3 years old.

Critical brain development period 

If he’s successful, health care providers could detect signs of autism in children as young as 9 months, a year or more before they can be diagnosed with autism based on behavioral symptoms. “That year or two years is a critical brain development period when the potential for developing new therapies is greatest,” Bosl said. 

In their initial study, Bosl, and co-researchers at Harvard Medical School and Boston University, pinpointed brain activity patterns that identified children at high risk for autism with an 80 percent accuracy rate. 

Making national headlines

The team’s initial work, first published in BMC Medicine journal and featured on CNN.com and Good Morning America, amazed scientists and physicians around the world because of its use of electrodes arrayed in a cap-like net that’s placed over a child’s head to monitor and record brain activity. Breakthrough computer algorithms developed by Bosl analyze minute patterns in the brain activity for clues. 

It’s the first time that electrodes, known as electroencephalograms or EEGs, have been used successfully to detect neurodevelopmental disorders. It’s completely safe, even for newborn infants, and relatively inexpensive, which makes it affordable for health clinics, even those in low-income regions. It also requires only a few minutes of a technician’s time to complete an analysis. Bosl and his team hope that EEG can become widely used for routine pediatric “brain checkups.”

Early intervention for autism and epilepsy

To confirm his initial findings, Bosl has launched a second phase of the study and is assembling an international team of researchers to study thousands of more kids. 

“If our early results hold, this could open a window to early treatment that might enable prevention rather than trying to reverse symptoms that have already emerged after the brain developed in an atypical way, as we do today,” Bosl said. “The only thing slowing us down at this point is funding to scale up.” 

What’s more, the technology has shown similarly remarkable results in Bosl’s related studies of children suffering from epilepsy and other neurodevelopmental disorders.

by Ed Carpenter | Office of Communications and Marketing »email usfnews@usfca.edu | Twitter @usfcanews