Delay in Shifting Gaze Linked to Early Brain Development in Autism

At 7 months of age, children who are later diagnosed with autism take a split second longer to shift their gaze during a task measuring eye movements and visual attention than do typically developing infants of the same age, according to researchers supported by the National Institutes of Health.

The difference between the groups’ test results was 25 to 50 milliseconds on average, the researchers found, too brief to be detected in social interactions with an infant. However, they showed that this measurable delay could be accounted for by differences in the structure and organization of actively developing neurological circuits of a child’s brain.

When they were infants, children who were later diagnosed with autism took longer to shift their gaze during a measure of eye movements than did infants who were not diagnosed with autism. The researchers believe that brain circuits involved with a brain structure known as the splenium of the corpus callosum (shown in this scan) may account for the differences in gaze shifting between the two groups. Image courtesy of Jason Wolff, Ph.D., University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Efficiently shifting attention early in infancy is thought to be important for later social and cognitive development. Split-second delays, the researchers suggested, could be a precursor to such well known symptoms of autism as difficulty making eye contact or following a parent’s pointing finger, problems that generally emerge after a child turns 1. Typically, autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is not diagnosed until after 3 or 4 years of age.

–National Institutes for Health

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