Researchers are using 3D imaging techniques in an attempt to detect early differences between autistic and healthy children.

Scientists at the University of Missouri in the US hope that their work will lead to the development of tests for the early detection of autism spectrum disorders (ASDs).

Autism is a developmental disorder which affects a child's ability to socialise, relate to others and communicate and also leads to other behavioural difficulties. Cases are thought to be on the rise with most estimates suggesting 1 child in 150 now has some form of ASD.

The University of Missouri work, if successful, could be very important as it is widely accepted that early detection of autism leads to much better outcomes for the child as effective therapies can be applied sooner. Late last year the The American Academy of Pediatrics published reports calling for early screening of every child for autism. The reports recommended that children be examined for signs of autism twice by age two, adding that some signs are there as early as 18 months.

The team at the University of Missouri are utilising 3D imaging techniques such as magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) to reveal correlations between facial features and brain structures of autistic children.

"When you compare the faces and head shapes of children with specific types of autism to other children, it is obvious there are variations," said Ye Duan, assistant computer science professor in the university's college of engineering.

"Currently, autism diagnosis is purely behaviour based and doctors use tape measurements to check for facial and brain dissimilarities. We are developing a quantitative method that will accurately measure these differences and allow for earlier, more precise detection of specific types of the disorder.

"Once we have created a formula, we can pre-screen children by performing a quick, non-invasive scan of each child's face and brain to check for abnormalities. Early detection is crucial in treating children and preparing families."

The facial and brain imaging work is focusing on the two distinct sub-groups of autism suggested by Judith Miles, professor of pediatrics and pathology at the University.

Complex Autism:

  • 20% of cases
  • Display unusual physical features, such as an abnormal head size or malformed ear or hands
  • Lower IQ, seizures or lack of speech after age 8.
  • Equally likely to be boys or girls
  • Not hereditary
  • Environmental or external factor during pregancy likely to be involved

Essential Autism:

  • 80% of cases
  • No unusual physical features
  • More likely to be boys
  • Likely to have siblings with a high risk for autism and other kin with the disorder.
  • May be purely genetic in origin, triggered by environmental factors, or an interplay between the two

It is also hoped that the work will reveal genetic clues which will benefit other scientists conducting additional research into autism.



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