Biomarker for Autism May Be On the Horizon

By Rick Nauert, PhD

Biomarker for Autism May Be On the HorizonCurrently, physicians and medical scientists diagnose a child as possessing an autism spectrum disorder (ASD) by observing behavior patterns over the child’s first three years of life.

New research from a Swedish University suggests advanced mass spectrometry can provide a rapid, inexpensive diagnostic method for ASD.

Investigators from Uppsala University have published their study, suggesting particular protein patterns or biomarkers can be used to detect ASD, in the journal Nature Translational Psychiatry.

These would be the first acknowledged biomarkers for autism.

Many diseases are caused by protein alterations inside and outside the body’s cells. By studying protein patterns in tissue and body fluids, these alterations can be mapped to provide important information about underlying causes of disease.

Sometimes protein patterns can also be used as biomarkers to enable diagnosis or as a prognosticating tool to monitor the development of a disease. In the current study, disruptions of the nervous system were in focus when the scientists studied protein patterns in autism spectrum disorder (ASD).

Researchers performed a detailed protein analysis of blood plasma from children with ASD compared with a control group. Using advanced mass spectrometric methods, they succeeded in identifying peptides consisting of fragments of a protein whose natural function is in the immune system, the complement factor C3 protein.

The study is based on blood samples from a relatively limited group of children, but the results indicate the potential of the methodological strategy, said researcher Jonas Bergquist, Ph.D. There is already a known connection between this protein and ASD, which further reinforces the findings, he said.

The hope is that this new set of biomarkers ultimately will lead to a reliable blood-based diagnostic tool.


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Encouraging Eye Contact May Disturb Autistic Kids’ Thinking

Encouraging Eye Contact May Disturb Autistic Kids' ThinkingChildren with autism look away from faces when thinking, especially about a challenging problem — just as people without the condition do, according to a recent study.

Avoiding eye contact is a common behavior of people with autism, and children with the condition are sometimes trained and encouraged to meet other’s gazes.

But the new findings show that looking away sometimes serves a purpose, and encouraging eye contact can interfere with a child’s thoughts.

“Although social skills training is important in encouraging eye contact with children with autism,” the new study shows that gaze aversion is helpful in concentrating on difficult tasks, said study researcher Gwyneth Doherty-Sneddon, an associate dean at Northumbria University in England.

“When teachers or parents ask a child a difficult question, and they look away, our advice would be to wait to allow them to process the information, and focus on finding a suitable response,” Doherty-Sneddon said.

The findings are published in the April issue of the Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, and were first posted online in Oct. 26.

The study included 20 children with autism and 18 with William’s Syndrome, a rare, genetic condition that typically causes learning disabilities and a distinct, highly social, overly friendly personality. The researchers asked the children carry out mental arithmetic tests.

They found that both groups of children engaged in gaze aversion while thinking, and increased their gaze aversion as question difficulty increased.

The study showed that autistic children follow the same patterns as other children when processing complex information or difficult tasks, the researchers said. Children without autism and adults look away when asked difficult questions, and gaze aversion has been proven in the past to improve the accuracy of responses.

When trying to retrieve information from memory, or solve a complex problem, looking at someone’s face can interfere with the way the brain processes information relative to the task. This is, in part, because faces are such rich sources of information that capture our attention, according to the study.

Pass it on: Children with autism who look away might, in some cases, be thinking hard or trying to solve a problem.


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