Can We Prevent Autism's Adverse Symptoms?

Breakthrough research points to earliest known detection

By Maura Sullivan Hill Posted Tue, 05/29/2018 - 09:19

Groundbreaking new research by USF’s William J. Bosl, associate professor of health informatics and clinical psychology, has opened the door to the early detection of autism and the development of therapies to limit the adverse effects of the disorder down the road. 

Most children with autism are diagnosed around 3 or 4 years old, when behavioral symptoms emerge. Bosl, together with colleagues at Harvard Medical School, Boston Children’s Hospital, and Boston University has developed a test that can detect brainwave patterns in children as young as 3 months that are associated with the later development of autism. It uses electroencephalography (EEG) tests and is the first brain-based test to detect autism so early in a child’s development.

Critical age for brain development

Current autism therapies emphasize reversing the adverse behavioral symptoms, which can include delays in language and communication, repetitive behaviors, and physical pain. But if doctors are able to detect emerging autism before these symptoms appear, they can create new therapies that reduce or prevent the adverse symptoms entirely. Bosl says that the brain undergoes critical development between the ages of 6 to 9 months, and, according to his research, this appears to be when the impairments that lead to the adverse symptoms of autism occur. 

“The goal of our research is to spur the development of new therapies to strengthen impaired neural circuits and redirect brain development during that critical development period,” says Bosl, the founding director of USF’s master’s program in health informatics. “If we can intervene at the first sign of problems, so the child develops on a more typical trajectory, the adverse symptoms of autism may never emerge.”

Early interventions for autism’s adverse symptoms do not yet exist, but Bosl’s early detection test makes it possible to begin developing them, he says. The results of his research were published in Nature magazine’s journal, Scientific Reports, in early May.

Simple as a hearing test

Bosl’s team tracked the brain development of 190 infants, observing the electrical activity in their brains with EEG tests. Using nonlinear physics and machine learning algorithms, the team compared the results with those of older children — some with an autism diagnosis and some without — and was able to identify, with greater than 95 percent accuracy, the electrical brain pattern that indicates autism as well as the severity of the adverse symptoms. 

Bosl is in the process of taking the lab research to the clinical trial phase, where he envisions his autism test administered at well-baby checkups at pediatric clinics across the country, as quickly and commonly as a hearing test or blood pressure check.

“This is only the start,” says Bosl, whose research has been featured on ABC News, NBC News, and Good Morning America. “Having an objective test that can be administered in a routine checkup by a physician, nurse, or assistant is a gamechanger. Next, we need expert behavioral pediatricians to start developing the early interventions, and investors and philanthropists to help fund the implementation of the complex software that will support clinical application.”

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