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Spectrum: Autism Research News

Scaled-down device detects brain activity in children

by  /  23 April 2014

This article is more than five years old. Autism research — and science in general — is constantly evolving, so older articles may contain information or theories that have been reevaluated since their original publication date.

Snug fit: A new imaging device contains 123 sensors packed into a helmet with a 50-centimeter diameter, just the right size for a 3-year-old.

A new device designed to conduct magneto-electroencephalography (MEG) in children younger than 3 years is ideal for detecting early signs of autism, researchers reported 3 March in Frontiers in Human Neuroscience1

MEG scanners typically use detectors coiled within a helmet to pick up the magnetic fields emitted by active neurons. They can detect differences among individuals in their neuronal response to various sounds. For example, the brains of children with autism react to language sounds about 11 milliseconds later than those of controls, according to a 2010 study.

However, standard MEG helmets are too big for most children. Because magnetic fields fade with distance, the devices work best when the participant’s head is close to the detectors. A snug fit can also minimize head motion, which can confound results. Researchers have previously designed a MEG device optimized for 5-year-old children.

In the new report, a different team debuted a device called Artemis123 that is designed for children between 6 months and 3 years of age. Because autism cannot be diagnosed before 2 years of age, this may allow for early detection of the disorder’s hallmark deficits. Artemis123 uses new technology to bring the detector coils closer to the scalp, only six millimeters away instead of the usual 1.5 to 2 centimeters.

The researchers tested Artemis123 on three typically developing children, who were 14 months, 18 months and 4 years old. The device accurately detected a response to sound in all three children. It also picked up signals when the children were at rest. This method is typically used to infer the strength of connections between brain regions.

Artemis123 is also equipped to detect head motion, although the researchers have not yet designed an algorithm to control for this artifact. The researchers say they also intend to optimize the device and test it on infants as young as 6 months. 


1: Roberts T.P. et al. Front. Hum. Neurosci. 8, 99 (2014) PubMed