Can EEGs Detect Autism?

By Amir Khan on June 26, 2012 11:27 AM EDT

EEG
An electroencephalogram, a test that measures electrical activity in the brain, may be able to detect autism and allow parents to start early intervention techniques earlier, (Photo: Creative Commons)

A common test may one day be able to detect autism in children as young as 2 years old, according to a new study, published in the journal BMC Medicine on Monday. An electroencephalogram, a test that measures electrical activity in the brain, may be able to detect autism and allow parents to start early intervention techniques earlier, researchers said.

Researchers conducted an EEG on 430 children with autism and 554 without and compared the results. Children with autism showed reduced connectivity in various areas of the brain and had patterns of activity distinctly different than non-autistic children.

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"Most of these patterns provide enough information to cleanly separate 2 to 12-year-old autistic children from neurotypical controls," Dr. Frank Duffy, study co-author and director of developmental neurophysiology at Boston Children's Hospital, told ABC News.

Autism is a development disorder characterized by impaired social and communication skills. Autistic children often have poor social skills, a delay in learning to talk, limited interests in activities and engage in repetitive behaviors, according to the Mayo Clinic.

Autism is typically diagnosed around 3 years of age, but symptoms can be seen as early as 16-months-old. Early intervention consists of therapy to help children walk, talk and interact with others before an official diagnosis is made.

Autism rates have skyrocketed since 2002, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In 2002, 1 in 156 children were diagnosed with autism. In 2008, 1 in 88 children were diagnosed, an increase of 78 percent.

The cause of autism is not known, but having a sibling with autism raises the risk. In addition, scientists think there is a genetic factor to the condition.

Duffy stressed that the test is not ready to be used as a clinical diagnosis, but hopes that with further study, it will one day be a key diagnostic tool. Geraldine Dawson, chief science officer at Autism Speaks, a non-profit autism awareness organization, told ABC News that the test could help people get treated earlier.

"This reduced functional connectivity in the brain helps us understand the impairments associated with autism," she said. ""The hope is that early behavioral intervention can help mitigate these functional impairments helping to form the connections that naturally develop in typical children."

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