Scientists are moving closer to developing a blood test to detect autism early in life—possibly even at birth. Autism is often not diagnosed until a child is three to four years of age, when the characteristic behavior pattern becomes more apparent. Identifying the condition earlier creates an opportunity for researchers to better understand the condition, but also encourages the development of treatments that might reduce the severity of the symptoms. In time, it is hoped that biomarkers for the condition will be developed for use during pregnancy, although this aspect of the research is still in the pipeline.
Meanwhile, the prospect of a reliable test for autism in the not-too-distant future has been met with an enthusiastic response from researchers at the University of California. Initial blood tests conducted on children with and without the disorder found significant differences between the two groups. The autistic children (all aged between four and six) showed higher levels of two types of immune cells, called cytokines, as well as differences in more than 100 proteins.
This evidence leads to the suggestion that changes in the immune system are linked to the development of autism. Interestingly, cytokines – the biomarkers believed to be indicative of autism – are also known to affect sleep patterns, and sleep disorders are often experienced by sufferers of autism.
Researchers in Boston have also come up with an interesting fact concerning autism: the risk of autism may be related to the month of birth, with babies born in January having up to an 80% higher chance of experiencing the disorder than babies born in December. The reason for this is yet unclear – what is known is that autism is a complex disorder with both genetic and environmental aspects. While scientists continue to unlock the genetic factors influencing this perplexing disorder, the arrival of an early test for autism will be most welcome for both parents, healthcare workers, and researchers alike.