Neuroscientist at UVA working to detect autism much earlier in babies

Meghan Puglia, a neurologist at the University of Virginia, is working to detect autism in babies much earlier.
Published: Sep. 2, 2022 at 6:47 PM EDT
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CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. (WVIR) - Meghan Puglia, a neurologist at the University of Virginia, is working to detect autism in babies much earlier. Her goal is to help children with autism achieve optimal outcomes through earlier diagnosis.

“We know early intervention is the strongest predictor of optimal outcomes for kids with autism,” Puglia said.

Right now, she says the earliest age that autism can be diagnosed is at 18 months.

“All babies, before they leave the hospital, get a hearing screening and metabolic tests. There is no screening for autism until the baby is toddling around and starting to talk,” Puglia said.

Each week, Puglia meets several babies just a few weeks old. In her lab, they are contributing to help the next generation of babies.

“All of our babies that come into the lab were this tiny little stretchy swim cap, essentially, with little sensors that are embedded in it. This cap is our EEG system, or electroencephalography,” Puglia said.

The cap, made up of 32 sensors, measures the neurological activity of the brain. Puglia is using the cap to look for markers in the brain that denote autism.

“We’re really interested in looking at the variability in the way the brain is responding over time. You might think too much variability might be a bad thing, but actually there is a sweet spot is what we’re finding,” Puglia said.

She’s working to create new social development growth charts from the information she gathers. This will then help other children, too.

The session starts with a spit sample from the baby. Then the child gets adjusted to the environment with their mother. Next, the cap is put o and the gentle tests begin. Puglia and her teammates play different noises, create various senses, to see how the babies react.

Puglia says most of the children coming in are just a few weeks old but she understands not all parents can make that happen. She’ll see children at four months, too. The study is ongoing and the babies will continue to come in until they are 16 months of age so Puglia can see how they’ve progressed.

“We also have a sister study that we’re doing in the UVA Neonatal Intensive Care Unit, the NICU, and that one is looking at babies who are born preterm,” Puglia said.

If the study is a success and the test works, the goal is to have all babies go through it, so there can be a better idea of which babies need a little help early on. It would be a supplement to the other tests newborns go through before they leave the hospital.

“We’re hoping to intervene even earlier and identify which babies would benefit from a diagnosis and additional care, that is the ultimate goal,” Puglia said.

Puglia says if they can catch autism at an earlier age, it will be easier for children to go into therapies ad get the help they need. While doing this study, she can already help analyze the way babies’ minds work at such a young age.

Puglia says she is about to see her 100th baby in the past year. She is still taking more for her study. If you are interested in having your child involved in the research you can go here and reach out.

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