An expert in autism has made a breakthrough that could allow doctors to diagnose the condition from brainwaves.
Tosca Heunis‚ from the Centre for Autism Research in Africa at the University of Cape Town's Division of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry‚ analysed electroencephalography (EEG) data to see if it was possible to find a "brainwave signature" in children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD).
She studied seven autistic children‚ five with the rare genetic disorder tuberous sclerosis complex (TSC)‚ five with both conditions and seven typically developing children.
“A particular analysis strategy called ‘recurrence quantification analysis’ of five-second segments of EEG data was able to tell the difference between children with ASD and children who were typically developing‚” said Heunis.
“To see if the ‘biomarker’ could also pick up children with more complex ASD‚ we also studied children with TSC. About half of children with TSC develop ASD.
“Remarkably‚ the brainwave biomarker was also able to pick up ASD in children with TSC‚ and could tell the difference between the ASD children with TSC and ASD children without TSC‚ all with greater than 90% accuracy.”
Heunis said EEGs could be used routinely on infants and did not require specialised medical facilities.
“Equipment is becoming increasingly child-friendly‚ and repeated measurements can be taken without harming the individual‚ while modern EEG technology makes it easier to identify‚ reject or correct segments containing artefacts‚ such as eye blinks and muscle activity.”
Rigorous investigation would now be required but Heunis - who recently completed her doctorate in mechatronic engineering at Stellenbosch University and also works at an app development company in Stellenbosch - said she was confident that with further studies it may be possible to use brainwave data to see if an infant or child was at risk of autism.
“If we can then find a way to get those infants and children to the right services‚ we may help a whole new generation of children with ASD to get faster and more accurate assessment and treatment.”
A recent survey in South Africa showed that children with possible ASD present late‚ and are typically only diagnosed when concerns are severe. Before the age of six years‚ almost no children have access to any ASD or neurodevelopmental screening that could identify those at risk and in need of a next step evaluation and potential intervention.
“Early identification is‚ therefore‚ a crucial first step to prevent unnecessary delays in access to early intervention strategies‚ parent education and planning for longer-term support‚” said Heunis.