Stellenbosch and UCT research shows children's brainwaves can detect Autism risk

15 Aug 2016 - 07:30

Autism and autism spectrum disorders (referred to as ASD) are seen in at least one in 100 children around the world and can have a very significant impact on individuals and their families. Ninety percent of people with ASD live in poor countries, such as South Africa, where awareness of ASD and access to clinical services is very limited. There are very few specialists in South Africa who can pick up and diagnose ASD early, yet early identification is essential for providing treatment and support.

The latest research by Dr Tosca Heunis, who recently completed her doctorate in Mechatronic Engineering at Stellenbosch University, has shown that analysis of brain activity over periods as short as five seconds can identify signatures that are different between children with ASD and children who are developing normally. To see if the method could pick up children with more complex ASD as well, Heunis also studied children with a rare genetic disorder called Tuberous Sclerosis Complex (TSC). About half of children with TSC also develop ASD. Remarkably, her brainwave studies were also able to pick up ASD in children with TSC, and could tell the difference between the ASD children with TSC and ASD children without TSC, all with greater than 90% accuracy.

Dr Heunis said that this method should allow early diagnosis and intervention for ASD, explaining that  “EEG is suitable for routine clinical application in infants and can be administered outside of a specialised medical facility.”

Prof Petrus de Vries, Director of the Centre for Autism Research in Africa at the University of Cape Town, who co-supervised the research, said “Although we still have a lot of work to do, these early results are very exciting and promising”. Dr Heunis is confident that with further studies, we will get to the point of routinely using brainwave data to see if an infant or child is at risk of ASD or not. “Equipment is becoming increasingly child-friendly, and repeated measurements can be taken without posing harm to the individual. If we can then find a way to get those infants and children at risk of ASD to the right services, we may help a whole new generation of children with ASD to get faster and more accurate assessment and treatment.”

To listen to the podcast of a CapeTalk interview with Dr Heunis about her study, please click here:

CapeTalk interview with Dr Tosca Heunis