For most parents, there seems to be a defining moment when they realize their child acts “different”. Although there is still much to be learned, it seems like every day there is greater advancement in the research and treatment of Autism. Usually, signs of Autism don’t appear until well into the toddler years, around age 3. However, new research may help identify brain activity that indicates the child may go on to develop Autism. In fact, the research is testing whether they can identify autism, based on brain activity, as early as 6 months of age.
Charles Nelson, a professor of pediatrics and neuroscience at Children’s Hospital Boston and Harvard Medical School, and William Bosl, a research scientist at Children’s Hospital Boston and an instructor at Harvard Medical School are using electroencephalography (EEG), which simply works by recording electrical activity from the brain, to monitor brain activity of infants. Specifically, they are looking for an “Autism marker”, and believe they have found one, a very high frequency brain waves known as gamma oscillations. Although a bit controversial, gamma waves are implicated in the consciousness, attentive focus, and (more interestingly—at least to me) Tibetan monks during meditation. Using 79 children, since they were 6 months old, Nelson has found that “…starting as young as 6 months, maybe even younger, infants who have a high risk for developing autism show dramatic reductions in gamma activity”.
In addition, Sophie Molholm of Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York , is investigating how sensory integration is different in Autistic children. Most people can integrate multiple sensory modalities. For example, you are at a noisy restaurant, yet you can still make out what your friend is saying to you because you can use visual cues to fill in where your hearing is restricted. According to Molholm, children with Autism cannot do this well. To show this, she conducted an experiment where Autistic and typical children listened to words that were hard to distinguish because of a background of white noise. In some cases, a video of someone saying the word was played, in other cases, not. What she found was that “…children with autism don’t benefit nearly as much from the visual signal as typically developing children”. The EEG data also found that these children have trouble integrating the visual and audio stimuli, therefore, they cannot distinguish the words when there is white noise in the background, even with the aid of a visual cue (someone saying the word).
There is promising news in her study. When she looks at teenagers, they seem to get better at integrating multiple sensory modalities. According to Molhom, “”The beauty of that finding is that it suggests that the neural circuitry is intact,” she says. “It’s just not coming on line during the earlier childhood years”.
This article is featured on NPR, and here is the link. http://www.npr.org/2011/06/02/136882002/looking-for-early-signs-of-autism-in-brain-waves?ft=1&f=1007