French researchers will test new medical imaging technology on babies’ brains next year, hoping to diagnose autism and other neurodevelopmental disorders much earlier

French researchers will test new medical imaging technology on babies’ brains next year, in hopes of diagnosing cases of autism and other neurodevelopmental disorders (NDDs) much earlier, researchers said. promoters of this project. As simple to use and non-invasive as an ultrasound, this new device can detect minute variations in blood circulation – and therefore in the activity of nerve cells.

It could make it possible to map the areas of the brain whose functioning seems abnormal, and thus to direct towards a very early diagnosis of autism or TND, explained during a press conference the neurobiologist Pierre Gressens, researcher at the Inserm and deputy director of the scientific interest group (GIS) “autism and TND”.

However, in terms of research on autism, “one piece of data makes consensus, it is the importance of the earliest possible diagnosis”, which allows more effective care, underlines Claire Compagnon, interministerial delegate for the national strategy “Autism and TND”.

In recent years, the average age at diagnosis has dropped: “Today it is less than five years, but it is still too much,” noted Ms. Compagnon. For Catherine Barthélémy, child psychiatrist and director of the GIS, “the ideal would be to intervene before six months or a year”.

Marketed by the French start-up Iconeus, the new medical imaging device uses technologies developed by researchers from Inserm and CNRS.

An MRI (nuclear magnetic resonance imaging) examination would give almost similar results, but it requires placing the young patient inside the device, which is difficult to envisage for a simple screening of newborns.

Easier to use and less expensive, the Iconeus device has been tested on mice: by placing a probe on the rodents’ heads, the scientists showed which areas of their brains were solicited when their whiskers were touched.

In early 2023, the operation of the device will be tested on a few dozen babies at the Robert-Debré hospital in Paris. Doctors will compare brain images obtained from children born at term with those of children born prematurely – the latter being considered to have a higher risk of having autism.

The researchers will then move on to a second stage, between 2023 and 2026: several hundred babies will be subjected to this new imaging examination, then followed over several years, in order to determine whether the abnormal signals that may be visible on the brain images will be corroborated by the usual methods of diagnosing autism.

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