Scientists Detect Intriguing Differences in The Eyes of Children With Autism And ADHD

Scientists Detect Intriguing Differences in The Eyes of Children With Autism And ADHD

When it comes to neurodevelopmental conditions such as Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) and Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), the earlier and more accurate the diagnosis, the better; it means more time for treatment and symptom control, and often a diagnosis gives people a much better understanding of themselves.

However, ADHD and ASD, like many mental disorders, require criteria to be diagnosed and exist on a nuanced spectrum. There is no test that can identify what is going on. New research suggests a reliable and potentially quick alternative for detecting signs of these conditions: an eye test.

Scientists have been able to use a test called an electroretinogram (ERG), which measures the electrical activity of the retina in response to light, to detect different patterns of activity in people with ADHD and ASD.

“ASD and ADHD are the most common neurodevelopmental disorders diagnosed in childhood,” says research optometrist Paul Constable of Flinders University in Australia. “But since they often share similar traits, making diagnoses for both conditions can be time consuming and complicated.”

“Our research aims to improve on this. By exploring how signals in the retina react to light stimuli, we hope to develop more accurate and earlier diagnoses for different neurodevelopmental conditions.”

A total of 226 young people were included in the research: 55 with ASD, 15 with ADHD and 156 controls without ADHD or ASD. The scans showed that children with ADHD showed higher overall ERG energy, while those with ASD showed less ERG energy.

The researchers suggest that differences in the way the brains of people with ADHD and ASD are wired, different connectivity and different levels of chemical messengers like dopamine, for example, are reflected in the eyes. Previous studies have also highlighted how the eyes can reflect what is happening in the brain.

This is the first study of its kind, so we are still at a preliminary stage. However, the results are sufficient to suggest eye behavior patterns that could be used to identify ADHD and ASD in children, and to distinguish them from each other.

“Signals from the retina have specific nerves that generate them, so if we can identify these differences and localize them to specific pathways that use different chemical signals that are also used in the brain, then we can show clear differences for children with ADHD and ASD and potentially other neurodevelopmental conditions,” says Constable.

Affecting around 1 in 100 children, ASD causes differences in the way children behave: that can include, for example, how they interact with the world and how they communicate with other people.

ADHD is thought to affect between 5 and 8 out of every hundred children. Like ASD, it involves brain development, but in this case it is characterized by being overly active, struggling to control impulsive actions, and having difficulty concentrating.

There are effective treatments to control ASD and ADHD, but proper diagnosis is key. More research will now be required to establish exactly how retinal signals differ in people with ADHD and ASD, compared to those without these conditions.

“Ultimately, we’re looking at how the eyes can help us understand the brain,” says cognitive psychologist Fernando Marmolejo-Ramos of the University of South Australia. “It’s really a case of looking at this space; it just so happens that the eyes could reveal everything.”

The research has been published in Frontiers in Neuroscience.

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