Undoing Autism

Breakthrough research could lead to cure

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, has opened the door to early detection of autism and the possibility of interventions that could lead to the eventual cure and prevention of the disorder.

Most children with autism are diagnosed around 3 or 4 years old, when behavioral symptoms emerge. Bosl, together with colleagues at Harvard Medical School and Boston Children’s Hospital, has developed a test that detects autism in children as young as three months. 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 behavioral symptoms, which include delays in language and communication, and repetitive behaviors. But if doctors are able to detect emerging autism before these symptoms appear, they can create new therapies that reduce or prevent the 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 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. If we can intervene at the first sign of problems, so the child develops on a more typical trajectory, the autism symptoms may never emerge,” says Bosl, the founding director of USF’s master’s program in health informatics.

Early interventions for autism 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 with autism and without autism and was able to identify, with greater than 95 percent accuracy, the electrical brain pattern that indicates autism. 

He 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.”