Could a Simple Test Detect Autism in Newborns?

Scientists from Rutgers University suggest that brain wave data from a routine hearing test can detect autism spectrum disorder (ASD) at birth.

As autism rates continue to increase, scientists are working hard to identify the cause of this neurodevelopmental disorder. In addition, because early intervention and treatment are so critical for children with ASD, researchers are also investigating ways to diagnose it as early as possible.

Recently, scientists from Rutgers University may have discovered a relatively simple method to spot autism in babies using a routine hearing test.

The research — published on February 14 in the journal PNAS Nexus — found that newborns diagnosed with autism years later had noticeable delays in their brain’s responses to sounds during the Auditory Brainstem Response (ABR) test.

The ABR test — often used to screen newborns for hearing loss — uses electrodes placed on the head to record brain wave activity in response to sounds delivered through headphones.

During the experiments, the scientists found that, on average, newborns later diagnosed with autism had a 1.76-millisecond delay in response to sound compared to babies that did not go on to develop ASD.

According to the study, the ABR test is routinely given to newborns, infants, and young children and already contains data about brain wave signals. However, current statistical analysis methods usually discard this data.

But the scientist’s new analyses examining the brain wave signal delays could be added to routine newborn testing to create a universal screening tool for autism.

Why is early autism diagnosis important?

Research shows that early diagnosis and treatment with evidence-based interventions can significantly improve the quality of life of autistic individuals and their families.

Currently, experienced professionals can reliably diagnose ASD by age 2, and sometimes earlier. However, most autistic children don’t receive a diagnosis until much later, which may result in delayed treatment. Still, parents can sometimes spot the first signs of autism by monitoring their child’s behavior and language skills.

According to the study authors, analyzing brain wave delays in the ABR test — clearly detectable at birth — means there may soon be a screening tool that can detect autism and other neurodevelopmental disorders in newborns. If researchers develop this tool, it could result in highly early intervention and treatment for autistic individuals.


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