The National Institutes of Health is providing $28 million over the next four years to fund research into autism biomarkers, such as eye tracking, automated recordings of behavior and speech, and measures of brain activity via electroencephalogram under its public-private Biomarkers Consortium.
Researchers at universities and hospitals across the country will compare lab-based measures of social impairment to commonly used, standard assessments, the NIH said. They will evaluate the sensitivity and reliability of autism spectrum disorders metrics as measures of social impairment over time.
"The heterogeneity in people with an ASD makes it imperative that we find more precisely diagnosed groups of research subjects so that we can objectively evaluate the clinical effects of an intervention," said National Institute of Mental Health Director Dr. Thomas Insel in a statement. "This consortium project will develop reliable tools and measures that clinical researchers can use to assess potential treatments."
In addition, subjects and their parents will give blood samples to collect genetic information that will be made through the NIH-funded National Database for Autism Research and the NIMH Repository and Genomics Resource.
The project's lead investigator, James McPartland, of the Yale School of Medicine, will study children aged 3 to 11 with and without autism for 6 months.
The goal of the project is to improve "precision" (or personalized) medicine, based on individuals' unique genetics, lifestyle and environment.
The medical community is scrambling to find new ways of diagnosing autism, for 1% of children globally are on the spectrum.
Researchers at Israel's Albert Einstein College of Medicine believes a promising way is to measure how quickly the brain responds to sights and sounds, while the University of California, Davis has said an excess of cerebrospinal fluid and enlarged brain size in infancy could be two biomarkers for autism.
And an early-stage study funded by the National Institutes of Health found that diagnosis of autism based on video taken using an in-development smartphone app concurred with diagnosis using traditional, in-person methods 87% of the time. Boise, Idaho-based Behavior Imaging Solutions and others are developing the app, which asks parents to take a 10-minute video of their child in three settings and record their own personal concerns and observations.