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CoE researcher seeks to shine light on autism diagnoses

Gang Yao, an MU biological engineering assistant professor, looks over a component of the device he is developing to test whether pupil reflexes can help diagnose autism. Photo by Vicki Hodder

Autism is widely known as a source of national crisis, a developmental disorder striking the lives of an increasing number of American families.

But autism’s causes are still uncertain and its symptoms widely variable. Even autism’s diagnosis is grounded in behavioral evaluations rather than objective physical tests.

Gang Yao, a University of Missouri–Columbia biological engineering assistant professor, is teaming up with the Thompson Center for Autism and Neurodevelopmental Disorders to help unravel some of the mystery that surrounds the disorder. Yao is working with the Thompson center to develop a device that will test a theory that autism can be identified through the eye’s pupil, using a pulsating light and high–tech imaging techniques.

“Pupil testing is objective, affordable and practical for children—and therefore suitable for large–scale and routine screening tests,” Yao said.

Yao’s work is being funded by a $222,777 two–year grant from the Wallace H. Coulter Foundation, a Florida–based not–for–profit foundation that supports biomedical engineering research. Two other MU College of Engineering researchers—Xudong Fan and John Viator—received Coulter Foundation grants this year.

The device Yao is developing will include a pulsating light source and an infrared imaging system that will photograph the subject’s pupil 600 times during a 20–second span. Bo Lei, an assistant professor of vision science and ophthalmology, will ensure the test results are not skewed by vision defects. Yao also is working on customized software that will control the testing and analyze the pupil images so that any patterns or parameters that may be characteristic of autistic children are recognizable.

Yao’s work is based on studies indicating that the midbrains of autistic children differ from those of typical children. Since the midbrain—which controls sensory information—affects how far and quickly the eye’s pupil constricts as well as how swiftly it recovers, mapping the pupil reflexes of autistic children may give doctors an objective test for the disorder, he said.

Judith Miles, the William Thompson Endowed Chair in Child Health and a leader in autism research at Children’s Hospital, welcomes the prospect of a new way to measure and quantify midbrain activities.

“Where do you draw the line between just normal variation and a problem?” Miles said. “So a quantitative test would be very helpful.”

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