April 13, 2024

New Approach to Assess Autism in Children Using Eye Reflex Test

Researchers at UC San Francisco have uncovered a potentially groundbreaking method for detecting autism in children by observing their eye movements in response to head movements. The study, recently published in Neuron, focused on a gene known as SCN2A, which has been linked to severe forms of autism, epilepsy, and intellectual disability.

The SCN2A gene codes for an ion channel found in the brain, particularly in the cerebellum, which is responsible for coordinating movement. Variants of this gene have been associated with abnormal vestibulo-ocular reflexes (VOR) in children with autism. The VOR is a reflex that stabilizes the gaze while the head is in motion, and children with autism and the SCN2A variant were found to exhibit hypersensitivity in this reflex.

The discovery holds significant promise for advancing autism research and potentially improving early diagnosis. By utilizing a simple eye-tracking device, children can be assessed for autism without the need for verbal communication or following complex instructions. This non-invasive method could revolutionize both clinical practice and research efforts in the field of autism.

Despite previous focus on the frontal lobe of the brain in relation to autism, the study’s findings underscore the importance of exploring the role of the cerebellum, particularly in relation to the SCN2A gene. By observing behaviors influenced by the cerebellum, such as the VOR, researchers were able to identify distinct patterns in children with the SCN2A variant.

The research team also conducted experiments with mice carrying the SCN2A variant to validate their findings. By measuring eye movements with an eye-tracking camera, they were able to distinguish between mice with the variant and those without. Moreover, their attempts to restore normal eye reflexes in mice through gene therapy showed promising results when administered during early developmental stages.

While further research is needed to ascertain the broader applications of this approach, the potential implications are significant. By leveraging the VOR as a proxy for autism, researchers may be able to identify at-risk children earlier and embark on interventions aimed at normalizing brain development.

The study’s authors emphasize that while the direct treatment of autism using this method remains uncertain, the eye reflex test could offer a more efficient means of diagnosing autism in children. By reducing the time and complexity of current diagnostic processes, families and healthcare providers may be better equipped to address the needs of children with autism at an earlier stage.

In conclusion, the novel eye reflex test developed by researchers at UC San Francisco presents a unique opportunity to enhance our understanding of autism and potentially transform the landscape of autism diagnosis and intervention.

1. Source: Coherent Market Insights, Public sources, Desk research
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