Infant screening could lead to novel therapies that help neurodiverse children reach their fullest potential.
“Early intervention gives individuals with autism the best start possible when their young brains are still ‘plastic’ and developing,” she said. “We’re not trying to cure autism, but we want everyone on a path to a fulfilling life.”
Touch and play are thought to be part of the answer for healthy development. They influence what’s known as epigenetics. While one’s genetics are locked in, a person’s epigenetics – influenced by behaviors and environment – are more flexible. Epigenetics influence how DNA sequences are read – loudly, quietly or not at all.
“Epigenetic changes are like dimmer switches getting bumped up or bumped down,” Puglia said. “They tend to be more sensitive in early development and more stable in adults. They can be regulated one way or the other, based on early life experiences.”
Roman, Aspen’s mom, was asked to engage in a little mother-daughter playtime after they gave the saliva samples. The researchers left the room, but monitored the interactions via a camera on each wall and a four-way split screen.
“Tummy time,” meant to strengthen baby’s arms and prepare her to crawl, was on the agenda, as was reading. Aspen rested on her side as her mommy touched her shoulder and shared the contents of a soft-bound book.
“For this, we’re really just interested in the baby’s overt behaviors,” Puglia said. “How does baby respond when mom touches her and speaks to her? Is mom more talkative or reticent? Is mom switching between tasks or is the baby driving? Is it a loving touch or more operational?”
She added, “We’re capturing five minutes of play, but hopefully it’s representative more or less of the experiences the baby has in daily life.”
Like the saliva, it’s another baseline. A survey about home life will fill in other details.
What’s Going in Their Little Heads?
After the play time, the researchers fitted Aspen with an EEG receptor cap. Even scientists don’t tend to say the mouthful “electroencephalography,” which measures electrical activity in different parts of the brain.
Using a warmed-up gel squirted into the reservoirs for each of 32 metal contacts, the researchers changed the LED lights on the skullcap, one at a time, from red to green – green meaning a connection was made. Aspen’s temporary lack of hair made the process quicker.
Then, in another room, mom held Aspen as the researchers synched the baby with their computers.
After marking a 3-centimeter space on Aspen’s arm, an assistant donned a pair of headphones and wielded a high-tech brush developed by the UVA School of Engineering. The brush can pick up multiple forms of touch data, such as how much force is used.
On the other side of the partition, a second assistant made adjustments. A display showed the wavy lines indicating Aspen’s brain at work.
With each one-second tick of the metronome sounding, the assistant with the headphones and black wand gave the baby one stroke. The motion activated the infant’s natural sensors, where hair follicles are beginning to sprout.
The auditory ticking translated visually to tick marks on the computer display, containing 32 bands of oscillating lines. Puglia said that allows her to detect fine biological changes.
“The stroking activates a type of receptor associated with calming and social forms of touch,” she said. “A mom or any social partner uses it to soothe. Every time my research assistant strokes her arm, we’re looking to see if the baby’s brain fires the same way or if there’s a little bit of variability. You actually want to have some fluctuation and variability. But too much, and you can’t do things like learn from patterns. Too little, and you might get stuck in a developmental rut.”