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Posted 09.29.06

 
 
   

Researchers Look to Pupil For Understanding Autism

COLUMBIA, Mo. -- Autism diagnosis is based on observation of a child's behavior, communication skills and interaction with others. Currently, there are no medical tests or devices to identify the brain disorder, which affects children in a variety of ways. At the University of Missouri-Columbia, researchers are hopeful that a device -- being built to test a theory that autism can be identified through the eye's pupil -- will provide valuable information about the puzzling disorder.

Gang Yao and Judith Miles.In collaboration with MU's Thompson Center for Autism and Neurodevelopmental Disorders, researcher Gang Yao, a biological engineering assistant professor in the College of Engineering and College of Agriculture, Food and Natural Resources, is building a device that will focus on how signals are sent from the pupil to the midbrain and relayed elsewhere throughout the brain. He recently received a two-year grant for nearly $223,000 from the Florida-based Wallace H. Coulter Foundation. Yao, who is working with Bo Lei, assistant professor of vision science and ophthalmology in the MU College of Veterinary Medicine and School of Medicine, is in the initial stages of building the device that will resemble vision-testing equipment used by optometrists.

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The device, which is expected to be tested next year at the Thompson Center, will feature an infrared camera that during a 20-second period provides more than 600 images of the pupil and its response to a pulsating light. Using elaborate software, information on how far and quickly the pupil constricts and how swiftly it recovers will be recorded. The software also will help researchers recognize and analyze abnormalities and common patterns of autistic children. Lei will monitor the process to make sure vision defects don't influence the data.

Yao and Lei's project is one of several ongoing research projects at the Thompson Center. It is based on a study which suggests the midbrains (which work as a relay system for sensory information) of children with autism differ from those of typical children. He said although countless studies and theories involving numerous aspects of the disorder have been presented over the years, extensive examination of the pupil and midbrain functions may offer additional insight about autism. Though cautious, Yao said the information could lead to the development of objective tests to help doctors detect and determine autism severity.

"Autism is very complicated," he said. "It's very, very difficult to study, and you have to test every aspect of the disorder."

Judith Miles, the William Thompson Chair for Autism Research at MU's Children's Hospital and associate director of medical research and practice at the Thompson Center, said efforts by Yao and Lei are the type of interdisciplinary partnerships that are necessary to learn more about autism. She said MU researchers and those worldwide are examining various aspects of brain activity to learn more about the disorder that has experts baffled. She likened research efforts to putting together a puzzle.

"The brain is a big area, and we know so little at this point,"; Miles said. "Different kids have different parts of the brain that's affected. I'm sure there is a group of kids where the midbrain function is important. This is a noninvasive way of saying, 'What is the midbrain doing?'"

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