Is this how autism develops?

28 March 2018

Interview with 

Marie Schaer and Holger Sperdin, University of Geneva

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About 1% of children are diagnosed with the neurodevelopmental disorder “autism”; this means, among other things, they struggle in social situations. But is this something that develops, or worsens, because they have autism? Speaking with Chris Smith, Holger Sperdin and Marie Schaer explain how they have been looking at children diagnosed as autistic or on the autism-spectrum to find out how information is processed in their developing brains. Their results suggest that those able to compensate tend to perform better; so could could a paucity of social information flow early in life, they're wondering, be one of the reasons why the brains of individuals with autism subsequently develop more abnormally; and might this also point to a better way to help those at risk to maximise their potential. Holger first...

Holger - First when we talk about autism, infants that are later diagnosed with autism at let's say a three or four years, they are less attuned to social cues. But we didn't have any kind of evidence for that in the brain, so we didn't know if they were alterations in the brain or differences in the brain that were already evident at such a young age. So the idea here was to explore the question. So basically how does the brain physiology of very young children that have been diagnosed with autism; how different is their brain or not from that of typically developing children?

Chris - How did you actually do the study; what was the method here?

Holger -So what we did in this study, we studied really young children, so toddlers and pre-schoolers aged between 21 months and 48 months. We had in total 36 participants and we compared two groups: one groups that contain 18 children with ASD or with autism, and another group that didn't have autism. The techniques we used were eye tracking and that allowed us to precisely see where those children were looking at. And to see what was going on in their brains and to compare between groups we used what we call electroencephalography, or EEG for short.

Chris - So what did you show the children and how is that reflected in the EEG data?

Holger - What we showed to them was two video sequences of dynamic social images that had a duration of about four minutes. They included other young children that they had never seen before practiced for example, yoga movement alone; they was imitating animal like behaviors, behaving like a monkey or they were jumping like a frog; they waved their arms, they made faces. So really lively stimuli of other children moving around. What we first found, toddlers and pre-school with ASD were exploring quite differently those videos, and those differences were also reflected inside the brain. And the first notable finding was that how information flowed in their brains was very different from one area to another in the brains of the children with ASD compared to their typically developing peers. That was the first finding. And a second one is then that we correlated, for example, the way that children with autism were looking at those dynamic scenes with those different metrics we had from the EEG. And what we found is they  had a much stronger brain response, if you want, in the brain of those who were less severely affected. So the hypothsis we make here is that some children - we  don't still understand why, but they managed to compensate that way you know in the long term. So lets say that if ASD kicks in at three or four months after birth, they had two years to kind of you know reorganize or rewire the brain until they are four, and this is as opposed to those without ASD, of course.

Chris - Do you think if you had done the study longitudinally; you'd taken the same children, same stimuli, and looked over a period of time, do you think what you'd see is this pattern becoming more entrenched as they got better at responding to social cues? This is the autistic children I'm referring to.

Holger - Exactly Chris. So this is something that we are currently pursuing inthe lab. So we are following up those children, so they are coming each 12 months. So we do two extra recordings in the same conditions right. And what we want to look at is how those that are, you know, following early intensive intervention or community intervention as opposed to those who don't have any interventions, for example. How does different metrics be found in the brain; how they evolve time? So, for example, let's say those who were more affected in this particular study here and who have, for example,  a less strong brain response as opposed to those who were less severely affected, will they start also to show this same pattern after treatment, let's say 12 or 24 months after? And we think that this might be the case.

Chris - Holger Sperdin. Marie Schaer who led the project thinks their findings might point to better ways to manage young children who are at risk from autism...

Marie - Those children from the age of a few months or they attend much less to the social stimuli, so their brain is getting less experience about all those social stimuli. And it means that already very early, at the age of 2, which is exactly when we diagnose them, they probably already shaped their brain in a way that is already very different, but it's only at that time that we can diagnose autism.

Chris - Do you think that you might be able to use the learning from this study to come up with strategies that mean you can intervene more meaningfully than we currently do in order to help people to become less severe on that spectrum?

Marie - One of the particular things that we had in our study is that we had eye trecking information at the same time as the brain activity. That means that we knew exactly what the children we're looking at. And what we saw is that the one who looked at the information in a more typical way were also the one who had the more typical brain development. So one of the hypothesis for the future research is for us to look whether treatment in which we increase the social skills of the children such as early development or other type of treatment that are really dedicated to the develop their social skills will then affect the brain over this very critical period of the age between two and let's say five/six year old.

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