Currently, diagnosing autism is more of an art than a science. To determine whether a kid has the disorder, trained professionals look for behaviors that are characteristic of the condition–for example, failure to make eye contact, or repetitive mannerisms.
Although these methods have proven effective for years, researchers still hope to find a more objective way of diagnosing autism. Now, new research suggests that a child’s brainwaves may hold the key. Scientists at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine at Yeshiva University have discovered a significant relationship between the severity of a child’s autism and the way his or her brain processes different sight and sound stimuli. And fortunately, they can measure this brain activity in an easy, non-invasive way.
According to study leader Sophie Molholm, it’s possible that the autistic brain has a much more difficult time processing all of the information it receives from the body’s sensory systems. “We have to organize all of this incoming information, and it’s a big and important task for the brain,” Molholm tells Popular Science. “There’s possibly a break down in how this information is processed, and that may be related to some of the symptoms of autism.”
The connection makes sense. Many autism patients will report that certain types of stimulation are disturbing to them, while others are oblivious to stimuli that most people would typically notice. Given these trends, Molholm and her team have been studying brainwave electroencephalogram (EEG) recordings of autistic patients for years. EEGs measure voltage fluctuations in the brain’s neurons, revealing when certain processes are working smoothly – and when they’re struggling.
“We have a net of sensors that’s like a skull cap, and you put that on the head,” Molholm says. “Wires come out from that and record the brain activity. It’s completely noninvasive, and it’s giving you an indication directly of one of the primary signals of the brain: electrical activity.”
The researchers used the cap to measure the brain activity of 43 children with autism (ages 6 to 17) as they were presented with various auditory and visual stimuli. Sure enough, the researchers noticed an inverse relationship between the subjects’ brain activity and the severity of their autism. The worse a child’s autism symptoms, the fainter the signals from the brain during multi-sensory integration. Or in other words, autism severity correlated with a slower time processing incoming information.
Since this relationship was so strong, Molholm hopes that one day, EEG recordings might contribute to a more objective diagnosis for autism, as well as better categorize where people are on the spectrum. “It’s an extremely heterogeneous disorder,” says Molholm. “If you’ve met one person with autism, you don’t have a representative picture of what autism is.” It’s possible that different subgroups are able to respond better to different levels of treatment, making a much more sensitive, scientific test all the more valuable.