Researchers have found a new method that could help detect autism spectrum disorder months or even years before symptoms appear. Earlier diagnosis of the condition could help children get interventions earlier and avoid problems like social and communication challenges.
The current approach to identify autism mainly relies on behavior. Existing blood or genetic tests in some cases fail to accurately identify the condition before children exhibit symptoms, Futurity reported.
The new study, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, shows that a common biomarker could indicate autism early in childhood. Kids diagnosed with the condition appear with very low levels of a neuropeptide, called arginine vasopressin, in their cerebrospinal fluid.
“This neuropeptide biomarker long predates clinical symptoms,” John Constantino, co-senior investigator and a professor at Washington University in St. Louis, said. “And if confirmed, it could allow us to begin interventions much earlier in children who will go on to develop problems, further opening the possibility of pharmaceutical strategies to increase neuropeptide levels and, potentially, to prevent some problems associated with autism.”
Researchers collected cerebrospinal fluid samples from 913 newborns at St. Louis Children’s Hospital in the past two decades. During the study, the babies with low levels of the neuropeptide after birth were diagnosed with autism later in childhood.
“This new biological clue from a rare and unprecedented collection of newborn human spinal fluid samples needs to be pursued in larger numbers of children,” Karen Parker, co-senior investigator and associate chair of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Stanford University, said.
The researchers plan to continue the study with a larger population to further understand how neuropeptides contribute to the development of autism. The team hopes that combining the biomarker with current methods that observe eye movements, motor impairment, hyperactivity syndromes and other risk factors could help improve and speed up diagnosis of the disorder.
“Autism currently is diagnosed behaviorally, mainly in children ages two to four years old, but these new findings suggest we might be able to better predict which newborns will go on to develop the disorder as children,” Constantino said.