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Researchers Set Sights on Early Autism Diagnosis

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Researchers Set Sights on Early Autism Diagnosis

Children's Health

Researchers Set Sights on Early Autism Diagnosis

Researchers Set Sights on Early Autism Diagnosis

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Researchers at the International Meeting for Autism Research in Boston Thursday describe early results in an experimental blood test that could be used to diagnose autism in toddlers. Scientists hope that earlier detection may allow them to alter the course of brain development in these children.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Robert Siegel.

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

And I'm Melissa Block.

About 700 scientists are in Boston today attending the International Meeting for Autism Research. One hot topic is detecting signs of the disorder in children who haven't reached their first birthday. NPR's Jon Hamilton reports that scientists believe early detection may eventually allow them to alter the course of brain development in these children.

JON HAMILTON reporting:

Experts can diagnose autism reliably by the time a child is two, but researchers say that's not nearly soon enough. David Amaral of the MIND Institute at UC-Davis says ideally, treatment should begin before autism has a chance to cause permanent changes in children's brains.

Mr. DAVID AMARAL (MIND Institute, University of California-Davis): Our hope is that we can do something to intervene to prevent them from becoming autistic. And if they have a form of autism that is already under way, then we could intervene with either behavioral therapies or other biomedical therapies to diminish the signs and symptoms of their autism.

HAMILTON: But all of that depends on identifying potentially autistic children in their first year of life, so Amaral and a team of researchers have been working to develop a blood test that could be given soon after birth. He presented early results from that effort at today's meeting. Amaral's team compared blood from 70 children who have autism with blood from 35 children who don't. The researchers measured levels of more than 3,000 different proteins.

Mr. AMARAL: Of those, over 500 proteins were significantly different in the two groups of kids, and 117 or so were very significantly different.

HAMILTON: It's not clear yet whether those differences can be used to predict autism. Even so Amaral called the results astonishing.

Mr. AMARAL: We thought we'd end up, you know, either getting marginal results or something that would show us some subtle trends. But in fact, seeing these striking findings at this early stage is very encouraging.

HAMILTON: Other researchers at the meeting are studying ways to detect autism in infants by simply observing their behavior. Geraldine Dawson is a professor of psychology and director of the Autism Center at the University of Washington. She says parents often don't suspect autism until a child is two or three and having trouble learning to speak. But Dawson says there are usually much earlier signs of trouble.

Professor GERALDINE DAWSON (Director, Autism Center, University of Washington): When we think about the brain systems that are involved in autism that are responsible for things like eye contact or interest in other people or the development of language, these are brain systems that come on in the first year of life, certainly by six to seven months of age.

HAMILTON: Dawson says studies of videotapes of infants who later developed autism reveal a range of abnormal behaviors.

Prof. DAWSON: Most of them having to do with how they're paying attention to the environment. So, for example, do they orient when their name is called? Are they interested in looking at other people's faces?

HAMILTON: Dawson says children who don't do these things may need special therapy. On their own, she says, they won't learn to interact normally with other people.

Prof. DAWSON: They really have to be taught that other people are rewarding and that interaction is fun. But the exciting thing is that most kids can learn that, and once they realize that people have a lot to offer and that interaction is a lot of fun, then we make lots of progress.

HAMILTON: Dawson and other researchers say there are hints that teaching children to look at faces and interact may actually change the way their brains develop. The earlier the process begins, scientists say, the more opportunity there is to reshape the brain. Jon Hamilton, NPR News.

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