A promising new method to detect autism in children through a simple eye scan aims to 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 project is one of many unveiled at the launch of the the new Caring Futures Institute at Flinders University.
The Caring Futures Institute is the first research hub in Australia fully dedicated to the study of self-care and caring solutions to transform how we care for ourselves and others.
“Caring is fundamental to any society but we need to do better, particularly in the context of our ageing populations, chronic illness, rising health care costs and the opportunities presented from advancing technology,” says Professor Alison Kitson, Vice-President of Flinders University’s College of Nursing and Health Sciences where the Caring Futures Institute projects are based.
“The Caring Futures Institute is focused on better care across the lifespan – developing solutions with partners and end-users to deliver societal and economic benefits,” Professor Kitson says.
Its other initial projects include developing evidence-backed digital apps to facilitate nutritional home cooking, digital innovations to empower heart patients of all cultures and languages in self-care, and enhancing online support for dementia carers.
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 Kitson 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 says.
The Caring Futures Institute is based on four themes:
- Better systems – in health, ageing, social care systems and services
- Better lives – focused on self-care, health and wellbeing
- Better care – including caring, supportive, restorative and palliative interventions
- Better communities – generating social inclusion through co-design and collaboration