A boyOne of the challenges for clinicians and researchers working with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is that there is no objective way to identify the disorder. Instead, clinicians must rely on subjective indicators of autism like behavioral characteristics. New research from the Albert Einstein College of Medicine (Einstein) of Yeshiva University may change that. Researchers at Einstein used electroencephalogram (EEG) recordings to observe how children with ASD responded to sensory stimuli. The children with more severe autism symptoms had the slowest responses to the stimuli. The research team suggests that brainwaves could be a biomarker for ASD.

The researchers observed 43 children aged 6 to 17 who had ASD. The children participated in a task that tested their sensory processing abilities. The researchers instructed the children to press a button as soon as they noticed a stimulus. They exposed the children to a simple auditory tone, a visual image of a circle, or the tone and the image simultaneously. While the children participated in the task, the researchers performed continuous EEG recordings using scalp electrodes. The EEG data allowed the researchers to observe how quickly the children’s brains processed the stimuli.

There was a strong correlation between auditory processing speed and symptom severity. Children with stronger autistic symptoms took longer to process the auditory tone. There was also a correlation between symptom severity and processing speed for the combined visual and auditory stimulus. This correlation was weaker than that of the auditory stimulus, but it was significant. The researchers did not observe a connection between visual processing speed and autism severity.

The results could lead to an objective method for diagnosing autism, especially for younger children.

“This is a first step toward developing a biomarker of autism severity—an objective way to assess someone’s place on the ASD spectrum. Using EEG recordings in this way might also prove useful for objectively evaluating the effectiveness of ASD therapies,” stated Sophie Molholm, Ph.D., associate professor in the department of pediatrics at Einstein, who led the study.

This research is published in the Journal of Autism and Developmental Disabilities.

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