Revolutionary eye scan developed to detect autism earlier

A Caring Futures Institute research study has developed a promising new method of detecting autism through a simple eye scan, which could identify the condition years earlier than is currently possible. 

The possible biomarker for autism spectrum disorder (ASD) also has implications for early detection of other disorders such as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, says lead researcher Dr Paul Constable from Flinders University’s College of Nursing and Health Sciences. 

The eye study for autism commenced over a decade ago, when Flinders University optometry expert Dr Paul Constable started looking for an autism eye-biomarker, a journey shaped by his son’s experiences surrounding an autism diagnosis at the age of three. 

His latest research has been presented at an international conference and is currently under peer review for official publication. 

He presented his team’s preliminary findings at the International Society for Autism Research conference in Canada recently, from a trial comprising children aged between five and 21 years from centres based in the UK, USA and at Flinders University to examine 89 individuals with ASD and 87 without ASD. 

“The retina is an extension of the brain, made of neural tissue and connected to the brain by the optic nerve, so it was an ideal place to look,” Dr Constable says. 

“We found a pattern of subtle electrical signals in the retina that are different in children on the autism spectrum, which relates to differences in their brain development.” 

His research, in collaboration with Yale University in the US, and University College London and Great Ormond Street Hospital in the UK, will now establish the test’s effectiveness on younger children. 

“It’s a quick, non-intrusive eye-scan using a hand-held device and we anticipate it will be equally effective on younger children. 

“Now we have found a likely candidate biomarker for autism, the next stage is to look at young children, even infants, as the earlier we can get to intervention the better,” Dr Constable says. 

He says his team often encounters parents who have two or three young children with autism, as the chance of having a second autistic child is much higher for parents with one child on the spectrum. Autism in Australia is usually diagnosed after the age of four. 

“Very early diagnosis means not only can children receive important interventions, but families are empowered to get the necessary supports in place, come to terms with the diagnosis, and make informed decisions.” 

Dr Constable’s team is also investigating the scan to detect other conditions including attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, with promising results. 

Professor Alison Kitson, Vice-President of Flinders University’s College of Nursing and Health Sciences and inaugural leader of the Caring Futures Institute, says this is one example of many society-changing projects to be advanced through the Caring Futures Institute. 

“A future with answers to our greatest health challenges, where the highest standard of care is available to all who need it, is not out of reach,” she adds. 

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