Being diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is an emotional and life-changing process for anyone at any age. While current methods rely on assessments by individuals such as specialist psychologists and psychiatrists, research led by University of Warwick has revealed a new way of testing for ASDs. After gathering evidence for a link between autism and damage to proteins in blood plasma, blood and urine tests have been developed which could help diagnose young children with ASD.
ASDs affect 700,000 people in the UK, about 1.1% of the population, and is known as a hidden disability. The developmental disorders cover a spectrum of symptoms, difficulties, and disabilities, but can be broadly divided into two branches of behaviours: restricted/repetitive behaviours and social communication/interaction behaviours. The former may include having extremely focused interests, such as with moving objects, or with repeating unusual motions, while the latter can be shown by inconsistent eye contact or by getting upset with slight changes in routine.
Existing diagnosis methods occur for children as young as two years old with assessments carried out by a multi-disciplinary team. However, many doctors feel that they often don’t have enough information to provide an accurate diagnosis or may over-diagnose due to mild ASD-like symptoms occurring in patients who may be stressed, depressed or anxious. As a diagnosis particularly in children requires a lot of support and with cases of ASDs increasing year by year, it is becoming imperative that a new indicator is found.
Research led by the University of Warwick has revealed a new way of testing for ASDs
Alongside researchers from the Universities of Bologna and Birmingham, Dr Naila Rabbani, Reader of Experimental Systems Biology at the University of Warwick sought out a better method for ‘earlier diagnosis and intervention’. They came across this when determining a link between those with ASD and the damage to proteins in the blood. The damage examined was that specifically from oxidation and glycation – processes where proteins are spontaneously modified. Compared to the control group, those with ASD were found to have a higher number of biological markers for oxidation called di-tyrosine, and certain modified sugar compounds called advanced glycation end-products.
The impact of this research has been reflected upon in Molecular Autism this month. This research will help researchers to look at other potential causes of ASDs, that currently include a person’s genes, as well as environmental factors. Furthermore, this provides a diagnostic test to help doctors identify those with ASD. Collaborators at the University of Birmingham have already used artificial intelligence algorithm techniques to formulate equations to show the distinction between healthy and ASD affected blood plasma. This technology can be utilised in blood and urine tests.
While undeniably any development that can provide a better way of diagnosing ASD leading to faster and more appropriate treatment is to be applauded, this primary research has been met with some trepidation from other scientists. Dr Max Davie, spokesperson for Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health, commented that whilst the research was promising “this is a very long way indeed from a ‘test for autism’.” He believes: “In order to add to existing diagnostic practice, a test would have to either predict later ASD at an early age, or improve upon existing clinical methods of assessment.”
This primary research has been met with some trepidation from other scientists
Dr Rabbani’s team hope to repeat the study on further groups to confirm its performance, trial its success for identifying ASD in younger children and assess its potential in predicting any further disease that may arise from an ASD diagnosis. With the test being heralded as one of its kind, one thing is for sure – University of Warwick is at the forefront of research once again.