It’s estimated that over 3.5 million people are living with autism in the US alone, and the condition prevents 35% of those from finishing their education or having a job when they reach adulthood. In the UK, figures show that 700,000 adults and children are on the autism spectrum. The disorder, which affects social interaction and can lead to behaviour problems, is thought o be caused by a combination of environmental factors and genetic mutations.
A significant amount of research has been carried out to determine the role that genetics play in the likelihood of individuals being diagnosed with autism, and previous studies have shown that around 30% of cases have a clear genetic cause. The remaining cases are believed to be a combination of both genetic and environmental factors.
Following the evidence that genetics can play an important part in autism, scientists have been working for some time on developing blood and urine tests to help health professionals diagnose the condition earlier. The tests, which are still being trialled, look for damage to proteins which have shown to be higher in children on the autism spectrum. The current method for diagnosing autism in children is far from ideal.
For children who show signs of having the condition, doctors are required to carry out extensive behavioural tests. This is a slow process and the results aren’t always accurate. By developing an effective blood test, doctors could provide results to patients that are fast and accurate. A blood test has been sought-after for doctors around the world for some time, and it’s hoped that earlier diagnosis to improve the treatment of the condition and greatly improve the lives of those affected.
As part of new research into developing a blood or urine test, scientists tested 38 children with autism and 31 without between the ages of 5 and 12. By looking at the plasma in the blood, the scientists found that the children with autism were more likely to have higher levels of protein damage, as well as higher levels of the oxidation marker ditryosine and advanced glycation end products. These results show that the idea of a blood test could be made a reality in the future.
However, the scientists noted that further research is desperately needed before this type of test could be implemented in a clinical setting. “We have found that the power of measuring damaged proteins to the brain may be a cause for a development of autism,” said Paul Thornalley, a professor in systems biology at the University of Warwick, who co-led the study.
It’s also important to take into account the sample size that was used in this study. “This (study) is weakened by a small sample size, possible overfitting of data and a lack of comparison groups,” said James Cusack, director of science at Austistica. “This study does not tell us how effectively this measure can differentiate between autism and other neurodevelopmental or mental health conditions such as ADHD and anxiety.”