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Babies' response to 'peek-a-boo' could hold clue to autism

New research from Birkbeck, exploring the levels of brain activity of babies in response to social stimuli such as peek-a-boo and the sound of laughter, could show the earliest marker of autism to date.

New research suggests that babies who show lower levels of brain activity in response to social stimuli, such as peek-a-boo or the sounds of yawning and laughter, are more likely to be diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) as toddlers.

It is the first research to show that functional brain responses before 6 months of age are associated with a later ASD diagnosis at 3 years, meaning these findings could show the earliest marker of ASD to date.

ASD is a common developmental disorder thought to affect around 2.8 million people in the UK, and the younger siblings of diagnosed children are at a higher likelihood of developing it than the general population. The emergence of the behavioural symptoms of ASD in toddlerhood is widely known but there is far less known about its development during the first months of life.

Scientists from Birkbeck, University of London, University of Cambridge, University College London and King’s College London used neuroimaging technology to measure the brain activity of infants aged 4-6 months, contrasting infants who have increased familial likelihood of developing ASD with those without a family link to ASD.

They studied how the infants’ brain activity changed in response to ‘social’ videos of people, such as people playing peek-a-boo or incy-wincy spider, with ‘non-social’ images of objects such as cars. They also measured the babies’ brain activity in response to human vocalisations (coughing, yawning, crying and laughing) compared to non-human sounds (bells, water running).

The infants who were diagnosed with ASD at the age of 3 years showed different patterns of brain activity at 4-6 months of age. Their brains showed lower levels of activity in response to the social stimuli compared to the non-social stimuli. In comparison, infants who were not later diagnosed with ASD were more likely to show the opposite pattern, with their brains showing higher levels of activity in response to the social stimuli than the non-social stimuli.

Dr Sarah Lloyd-Fox from Birkbeck’s Centre for Brain and Cognitive Development, who led the study, said: “We have found an early indication of different patterns of brain activity in infants who go on to develop ASD. Given the importance of responding to others in our social world, it is possible that different attentional biases in babies may impact on the development of social brain responses, which can continue to affect the child’s developmental trajectory as they get older.

“Identifying early patterns of altered development which may later associate with ASD is important because it will allow doctors to offer earlier interventions and provide families with earlier avenues for support. This might mean giving the child and parents new strategies to re-engage their attention towards important social cues and learn different ways of interacting.

This study is part of a much larger series of longitudinal projects called the British Autism Study for Infant Siblings (BASIS) Network. As this work continues, the network will bring together different threads of data to form a better understanding of how these early patterns of atypical processing in infancy may relate to later social interaction and communication difficulties characteristic of ASD in later childhood and help guide the development of improved support for families.

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