Micro movements a way of diagnosing autism, say researchers

Tiny movements of the eye that are not even visible to the human eye are being studied by researchers in the University of Indiana as a means to detect autism and autistic spectrum disorder.

The tiny micro movements and their frequency can also be an indicator as to the severity of the symptoms according to the new research conducted by Jorge V. José, Ph.D., vice president of research at Indiana University, and Elizabeth Torres, Ph.D., the principal investigator for the study and an assistant professor in the Department of Psychology in the School of Arts and Sciences at Rutgers University.

They are basing research on the work of a research student in Jose’s lab who analysed the random nature of movements in people with autism as part of his PhD thesis.

Dr Wui’s previous research concentrated on the random movement of young people with autism during a computer science test whilst touching a computer screen to answer a question put before them to indicate a decision. That research was published in the Frontiers of Neuroscience journal in July.

In the new study, researchers looked at the entire movement of making a decision by raising the hand to touch a computer screen but captured the movement of the eye using a 240 frame per second capture camera.Dr. José said:

“When a person reaches for an object, the speed trajectory is not one smooth curve; it has some irregular random movements we call ‘jitter. We looked at the properties of those very small fluctuations and identified patterns. Those patterns or signatures also identify the degree of the severity of the person’s autism spectrum disorder.

“Often in movement research, such fluctuations are considered a nuisance. People averaged them away over repeated movements, but we decided instead to analyse the movements on a smaller time scale and found they hold lots of information to help diagnose the continuum of autism spectrum disorder.

“Looking at the speed versus time curves of the motion in much more detail, we noticed that in general many smaller oscillations or fluctuations occur even when the hand is resting in the lap. We decided to carefully study that jitter. Our remarkable finding is that the fluctuations in this jitter are not just random fluctuations, but they do correspond to unique characteristics of the degree of autism each child has.”

Dr Wu commented that the patter of eye movement indicated type and severity of autism. The new refinement may help advance research in autism spectrum disorder to develop treatments tailored to the individual’s needs and capabilities. A collaborative effort with the Torres lab at Rutgers has been commissioned.