Thirteen years in the making, new eye scan technology has the potential to detect a biomarker for autism much earlier than current tests.
The project by Flinders University has been led by Dr Paul Constable since 2006, following his son’s experiences of being diagnosed with autism at three years old.
“The retina is an extension of the brain, made of neural tissue and connected to the brain by the optic nerve, so it was an ideal place to look,” Dr Constable says.
“We found a pattern of subtle electrical signals in the retina that are different in children on the autism spectrum, which relates to differences in their brain development.
“It’s a quick, non-intrusive eye-scan using a hand-held device and we anticipate it will be equally effective on younger children.
“Now we have found a likely candidate biomarker for autism, the next stage is to look at young children, even infants, as the earlier we can get to intervention the better.”
Autism is typically usually diagnosed after the age of four in Australia, but with the test potentially able to detect it earlier, children with autism will be able to reap the benefits of early intervention.
Dr Constable explains, “Very early diagnosis means not only can children receive important interventions, but families are empowered to get the necessary supports in place, come to terms with the diagnosis, and make informed decisions.”
Chief Executive Officer of Autism Awareness Australia, Nicole Rogerson says the retina scan holds great potential for earlier diagnosis.
“This is a very promising sign to help reduce the age of children being identified as on the autism spectrum,” Ms Rogerson says.
“We have known for years of the importance of early intervention.
“The keyword is ‘early’, meaning that the sooner we can start teaching skills improving communication and play [it] will have great benefits to the child and their parents.
“Teaching and supporting these children is critical to them achieving their best outcome, so starting early is so important.”
Dr Constable presented his team’s preliminary findings at the International Society for Autism Research Conference in Canada recently.
The trial comprised of children aged between five and 21 years from centres based in the UK, USA and at Flinders University to examine 89 individuals with autism and 87 without.
The research team is also looking into whether the scan can detect other conditions, like attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) which has shown promising results.
It will also establish the scan’s effectiveness on younger children, in collaboration with the USA’s Yale University, University College London and Great Ormond Street Hospital in the UK.