What if autism and other neurodevelopmental disorders (NDDs) could be diagnosed much earlier? In the hope of achieving this, French researchers will test a new medical imaging technology on the brains of babies in 2023, the promoters of this project announced on Monday.
As simple to use and non-invasive as an ultrasound, this new device can detect minute variations in blood circulation, and therefore in the activity of nerve cells. It could make it possible to map the areas of the brain whose functioning seems abnormal, and thus to direct towards a very early diagnosis of autism or TND, explained during a press conference the neurobiologist Pierre Gressens, researcher at Inserm and deputy director of the scientific interest group (GIS) “autism and TND”.
“The importance of the earliest possible diagnosis”
However, in terms of research on autism, “there is a point of consensus, it is the importance of diagnosis as early as possible”, which allows for more effective care; underlines Claire Compagnon, interministerial delegate for the national strategy “autism and TND”. In recent years, the average age at diagnosis has dropped: “Today it is less than five years, but it is still too much”, noted Claire Compagnon. For Catherine Barthélémy, child psychiatrist and director of the GIS, “the ideal would be to intervene before six months or a year”.
Marketed by the French start-up Iconeus, the new medical imaging device uses technologies developed by researchers from Inserm and CNRS. An MRI (nuclear magnetic resonance imaging) examination would give almost similar results. But it involves placing the young patient inside the device; which is difficult to envisage for simple screening of newborns. Easier to use and less expensive, the Iconeus device has been tested on mice: by placing a probe on the rodents’ heads, the scientists showed which areas of their brains were solicited when their whiskers were touched.
In early 2023, the operation of the device will be tested on a few dozen babies at the Robert-Debré hospital in Paris. The doctors will compare the brain images obtained on children born at term with those of children born prematurely; the latter being considered to have a higher risk of being affected by autism. The researchers will then move on to a second stage, between 2023 and 2026: several hundred babies will be subjected to this new imaging examination, then followed over several years, in order to determine whether the abnormal signals that may be visible on the brain images will be corroborated by the usual methods of diagnosing autism.