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Institute for Basic Research Study Finds a Routine Hearing Test M...

New analytics could lead to a universal screening tool for autism

The Office for People With Developmental Disabilities today announced that a multi-institute team, including researchers from their Institute for Basic Research in Developmental Disabilities (IBR), has published a study that finds that a routine hearing test may help clinicians detect neurodevelopmental disorders, including autism, in newborns.

The findings were published in the article, “Sensing Echoes: Temporal Misalignment in Auditory Brainstem Responses as the Earliest Marker of Neurodevelopmental Derailment,“ in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) Nexus 2023.

The team, led by Elizabeth Torres, PhD, of Rutgers University and the New Jersey Autism Center of Excellence, examined brain-wave data that had already been collected by researchers at IBR and at the study’s other collaborating site, the University of Miami, from routine auditory brainstem response (ABR) tests in newborns, infants, and young children. In these tests, which are given to assess hearing ability, click sounds are played to sleeping babies whose brain response is recorded by using soft electrodes. The researchers found that infants later diagnosed with autism had pronounced delays in their brainstem’s responses to the sounds as well as reduced access to sound frequencies compared to typically developing newborns. As a result, social communication and language acquisition can be impeded in these babies from the start of life.

“The findings of this study could greatly impact early detection of autism in newborns, providing families with the opportunity to seek early intervention or supports for their children,” said Kerri E. Neifeld, Commissioner of the New York State Office for People With Developmental Disabilities. “The talented research team at OPWDD’s Institute for Basic Reasearch contributed an extensive amount of time and expertise to this important study and we look forward to the creation of a tool that will help put this screening into practice.”

One of the ABR datasets used in this study—funded in part by OPWDD, the National Institutes of Health, and Autism Speaks—was curated from an archived database containing more than 20 years of data from thousands of infants in IBR’s Infant Development Follow-up Research Program, currently led by Ha Phan, MD, PhD. Other IBR collaborators in the study are from a multi-disciplinary team with extensive expertise in autism—Eric London, MD—and developmental disabilities: Phyllis Kittler, PhD, and Anne Gordon, MS Ed, also Head of IBR’s Early Intervention Evaluation Program. Together, the IBR team analyzed the infants’ clinical and ABR data.

Currently, autism is detected at the average age of 4.5 years of age, on the basis of differences in social interactions. By then, the brain circuitry has already matured to some degree, and neurodevelopment is off its normal course. Therefore, analytical methods such as the one described here are critically needed to detect neurodevelopmental problems and to identify targets for treatment much earlier. Because of the extreme plasticity of the infant brain, the earlier the therapeutic intervention is provided, the more effective the treatment.

These new analytics could be added, with little effort and minimal cost, to the routine testing of newborns to create a universal screening tool for neurodevelopmental disruption and very early signs of autism.

About OPWDD and IBR:
The Institute for Basic Research in Developmental Disabilities (IBR) is the research arm of the New York State Office for People With Developmental Disabilities (OPWDD). IBR also provides clinical services and conducts educational programs. OPWDD is responsible for coordinating services for New Yorkers with developmental disabilities, including intellectual disabilities, cerebral palsy, Down syndrome, autism spectrum disorders, Prader-Willi syndrome, and other neurological impairments.