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Novel approaches to early detection and treatment of ASD

Principal Investigator:
  • Lonnie Zwaigenbaum, University of Alberta
Team Members:
  • Ofer Golan, Bar-Ilan University
  • Jessica Brian, Holland Bloorview Kids Rehabilitation Hospital
  • Sam Wass, MRC Cognition and Brain Sciences Unit
  • Mark Johnson, CBCD, Birkbeck, University of London
  • Susan Bryson, IWK Health Centre
  • Isabel Smith, IWK Health Centre
  • Azadeh Kushki, IWK Health Centre
  • Azrieli Foundation

Project Overview

More than 1 in 100 individuals are diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), with profound impacts on the quality of life of those who are affected and their families. Until recently, children were rarely referred for assessment before age 2, so we knew little about ASD early in life. Prior studies by Dr. Zwaigenbaum and his international team and others over the past decade – studies of infants who are at increased risk because they have an older sibling with ASD – have revolutionized the field and brought us closer to earlier diagnosis and treatment. For this project, the team is studying how at-risk infants direct their attention and regulate their emotions, and how these relate to their ability to communicate and interact with others. Their research consists of two related projects. In the first project (involving the Canadian and Israeli teams) they will examine how flexibly infants shift their attention from one interesting object to another, and how this influences their responses to situations that elicit positive or negative emotion. Infants who have difficulty shifting their visual attention may also get ‘stuck’ on intense emotions, and that both may impair their ability to interact and communicate with others, leading to increase risk of ASD. In the second project, they are testing whether teaching infants to become more flexible in shifting their attention (using computer games developed by our UK team) helps them benefit further from other interventions developed by the Canadian and UK teams. Based on findings from this research, they will train health professionals to better identify the earliest signs of ASD, and work with community partners to implement new interventions to help these children reach their potential.