COLUMBIA, Mo. — Autism spectrum disorders (ASD), which can cause social, behavioral and communication challenges, often are diagnosed after a lengthy and often subjective assessment process. However, MU’s patented screening technology licensed recently by Kansas City company PANDA Healthcare Technologies, could soon be a game changer for families.
Studies show that the pupillary light reflex (PLR), the involuntary pupil size change that occurs when a person’s eyes respond to light, is different in children with ASD and other neurological disorders. Judith Miles, professor emerita of child health and genetics, and Gary Yao, professor of biomedical, biological and chemical engineering, developed a device and associated software that makes it possible to track and measure these movements in children at an earlier age than was previously possible.
“Once we began to test infants and toddlers, we noticed the deficiencies in standard PLR instruments and eventually came up with a new system that can measure PLR in young children without the need of restraint,” Yao said. “Additionally, PANDA is committed to incorporating the PLR test in mobile platforms. If successful, I believe this not only will have a major impact on autism screening and treatment, but also on many other fields using PLR.”
In a study published in Scientific Reports, a journal of Nature, Miles and Yao noted that most children are diagnosed with ASD after the age of four, although early signs may appear in children as young as 12 months.
“There is much evidence that early behavioral interventions greatly improve outcomes for children with ASD,” said Sam Bish, a senior technology transfer manager who works with faculty to leverage the commercial potential of their research. The Technology Advancement Office helps find companies like PANDA and grants licenses to MU intellectual property to enable them to develop and transform early-stage innovations into marketable products.”
Jeff Blackwood, PANDA founder and CEO, said organizations like the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have prioritized the development of objective and clinically viable assessment tools to diagnose and assess the severity of ASD symptoms.
“Our team has set out to develop an ASD diagnostic algorithm based on multiple biometrics that includes pupillometry, eye-tracking, and other autonomic measures that can be simultaneously measured using an iPhone app, with improved sensitivity and specificity over and above current behavioral assessments,” Blackwood said.
Ultimately, the company hopes to provide pediatricians with an objective diagnostic tool that takes five minutes to administer and can be incorporated into regular well-child checkups. Blackwood said his team expects the technology to improve accuracy and allow practitioners to evaluate much younger children.
Miles and Yao began work on their PLR technology in 2012 after being selected to receive proof-of-concept funding from MU’s Coulter Biomedical Accelerator. Yao said the funding allowed them to build a prototype and gather preliminary data needed to secure additional funding.
“Biomedical product development tends to be a lengthy process,” said Jaya Ghosh, Coulter Biomedical Accelerator program director. “We are very excited that this technology is ready to improve patient care.”
Participant recruitment for all studies on the PLR technology was conducted through the research database at the MU Thompson Center for Autism & Neurodevelopmental Disorders.
Miles and Yao reported the difference in PLR responses between children with and without high risk of developing autism spectrum disorders in their January 2020 study, “A Longitudinal Study of Pupillary Light Reflex in 6- to 24-Month Children.”