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Simple EEG Might Help Spot Autism in Children

EEG patterns offer criteria for diagnosing autism as early as infancy

2 min read
Simple EEG Might Help Spot Autism in Children

Autism can be difficult to spot in young children, and currently parents must rely on behavioral evaluations for diagnosis. But a new study offers hope that a simple electroencephalogram (EEG), which measures the electrical activity of the brain, can give doctors a reliable tool to diagnose autism as early as infancy.

Scientists at Boston Children's Hospital compared the EEG measurements of more than 1300 children with and without autism. They examined the extent to which electrical activity from various brain regions synchronized with activity from other regions, known as EEG coherence, or connectivity. A trend emerged: Compared with the control group, the children with autism had reduced connectivity between brain regions, and this was especially true in regions of the brain's left hemisphere that are responsible for language. 

To measure connectivity in the brain, researchers Frank Duffy and Heidelise Als quantified the degree to which any two given EEG signals—in the form of waves—are synchronized. If two or more waves rise and fall together over time, those brain regions are tightly connected. 

Duffy and Als generated coherence readings for more than 4000 unique combinations of electrode signals and, using computational analysis, looked for the signals that seemed to vary the most from child to child. From these, they identified 33 coherence factors that consistently distinguished the children with autism.

Previous studies using EEG and functional MRI to study autism have found that people with autism often have altered connectivity across brain regions compared with people without autism. But the details of these studies, such as how the connectivity is altered, have differed in conflicting ways. Consequently, scientists haven't been able to come up with reliable criteria for EEG- or MRI-based diagnostic tests. 

The new study attempted to clear up some of the confusion. The study is the largest and most rigorous of its kind to date. The researchers also took special care to minimize the effects of EEG artifacts: non-relevant electrical activity generated by the blinking, eye movement and bursts of muscle activity of squirmy kids.

Duffy and Als say they believe the findings could be the basis for a future diagnostic test of autism, particularly at very young ages, when behavior-based measures are unreliable. The researchers plan to repeat the study for children with Asperger's syndrome to see if EEG patterns are similar to those of autism.

The study was published June 26 in the journal BMC Medicine.

Image credit: Frank Duffy and Heidelise Als, Boston Children's Hospital



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Are You Ready for Workplace Brain Scanning?

Extracting and using brain data will make workers happier and more productive, backers say

11 min read
A photo collage showing a man wearing a eeg headset while looking at a computer screen.
Nadia Radic

Get ready: Neurotechnology is coming to the workplace. Neural sensors are now reliable and affordable enough to support commercial pilot projects that extract productivity-enhancing data from workers’ brains. These projects aren’t confined to specialized workplaces; they’re also happening in offices, factories, farms, and airports. The companies and people behind these neurotech devices are certain that they will improve our lives. But there are serious questions about whether work should be organized around certain functions of the brain, rather than the person as a whole.

To be clear, the kind of neurotech that’s currently available is nowhere close to reading minds. Sensors detect electrical activity across different areas of the brain, and the patterns in that activity can be broadly correlated with different feelings or physiological responses, such as stress, focus, or a reaction to external stimuli. These data can be exploited to make workers more efficient—and, proponents of the technology say, to make them happier. Two of the most interesting innovators in this field are the Israel-based startup InnerEye, which aims to give workers superhuman abilities, and Emotiv, a Silicon Valley neurotech company that’s bringing a brain-tracking wearable to office workers, including those working remotely.

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