Autistic Children’s Brain Responses To Words Predict Their Developmental Outcomes

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Language can prove a bugaboo for children with autism. Now new research finds that it’s possible to use toddlers’ brain responses to words to predict their linguistic and cognitive skills down the road.

Researchers from the University of Washington looked into how kids with a range of autism symptoms process words. They relied upon sensors anchored by elastic caps to compare the brain responses of a group of 2-year-olds to familiar and unfamiliar words. Among the participants, 24 were diagnosed autism and 22 were developmentally normal.

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The researchers then split the group of autistic children into two based on the severity of their condition and analyzed their brain responses once again. They found that the kids with less severe autism had brain responses similar to developmentally normal kids. This was not the case for kids with severe autism.

The kids with less severe autism symptoms had close-to-average brain responses to the stimuli. When they heard familiar words, strong activity was seen in the temporal parietal region of the left side of the brain, which is typically activated in word-processing. Conversely, patients with stronger autism symptoms had more activity in the right hemisphere of their brain, which is atypical.

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“We think this measure signals that the 2-year-old’s brain has reorganized itself to process words. This reorganization depends on the child’s ability to learn from social experiences,” said the study authors, in a statement.

All the participants had their cognitive abilities assessed, along with language and social skills and emotional development. They were tested at ages 2, 4 and 6. With behavioral therapy, the children with autism were able to improve with time, but there were notable differences between their outcomes. The kids with brain responses most similar to the developmentally normal kids at age 2 had the greatest improvements in their behavior and social skills by the time they were 6.

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“First the fact that a measure of word processing taken at the age of 2 predicts language, cognition, and adaptive behavior at the age of 6 years is amazing and shows that brain measures are more sensitive to individual differences than other measures,” says study author Patricia Kuhl, the co-director of the University of Washington’s Institute for Learning & Brain Sciences. “The brain will provide our best chance for understanding how children with autism process information differently. And this information will help us design better treatments for children with autism.”

The researchers believe these brain measurements could be meaningful even before a child reaches the age of 2. They are currently planning studies on children at the age of 14 months to see if they can prospectively identify those children who are at risk for autism. “If we can identify children at risk earlier, then treatments can begin earlier when the brain is most ‘plastic’ from a neural point of view,” says Kuhl. “This is the dream.”

The study is published in the journal PLoS ONE.