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New technology to help children with Autism

MICHELANGELO at the 13th Annual International Meeting for Autism Research (IMFAR)

Atlanta (U.S.A.) May 14-17, 2014

The IMFAR meeting was held in Atlanta, Georgia, USA from 14th to 17th of May 2014 and it offered a wonderful opportunity to have an overview of the most recent researches in a wide variety of fields related to ASD and to foster networking among researchers from all over the world that share common interests.

In the Technological Demo Session Dr. Billeci of the Italian National Council of Research (CNR), Partner of the MICHELANGELO Project, presented a study realized in the context of the MICHELANGELO Project with regard to the use of eye-tracking technology in responding and initiative joint attention (JA) tasks in ASD. It was showed how eye-tracking assessments of JA might provide more precise spatial and temporal information than face-to-face assessments. Data were recorded on ASD and control children while observing video of JA; several features characterizing the gaze as well the scan path were extracted. The studies showed a different attention to non-social object in ASD and control children.

The rich program of the Conference addressed various topics and it is interesting to notice how several speakers analysed aspects that are characterizing elements of the MICHELANGELO research work. In the opening session Prof. Murphy of the King’s College London highlighted the importance of personalization in the diagnosis and treatment of ASD and the need in designing the therapeutic protocol of an adaptive approach responding to newly emerging data.

In other presentations technologies like EEG, imaging and eye-tracking were discussed by evidencing how they can provide objective outcome markers of the effect of the treatment.

Various studies presented in the conference were related to brain structural and functional connectivity in ASD. A special attention was paid to the study of brain connectivity in very young ASD children (between 6 and 24 months). The characterization of the connectivity’s changes during this critical developmental period can help to understand the link with the development of behavioural and sensory deficits.

Diffusion Tensor Imaging (DTI) analysis was used to examine structural connectivity and measure white matter (WM) in infants at risk for ASD and in low risk controls at 24 months; the presented study showed that high risk children present delayed WM maturation in primary sensory-motor cortices and selective connectivity deficits, affecting only long-range connections.

Another study showed how electrophysiological techniques could be used as a support to investigate the effect of a treatment on ASD children. EEG data were acquired during a face-processing task before and after an intensive treatment of 6 months. The researchers noticed that according to the baseline neural characteristics of the child the response to the treatment was different. This result emphasizes the importance of a tailored treatment.

In another presentation the trajectories of Respiratory Sinus Arrhythmia (RSA) were explored; the researchers showed that in ASD there is an initial increase in RSA with respect to controls and then a flattening of the signal and a crossing by control group. This flattening corresponds to the emergence of ASD symptoms. Besides RSA is correlated to social functioning and language. The results of this study suggest that RSA could be considered as a potential marker of risk for ASD.

Technological applications in ASD addressed during the Conference included robots, virtual reality, computer application, eye-tracking and wearable systems for electrophysiological signal monitoring.

An interesting study was about the application of the NAO robot (the same robot used in Michelangelo) to capture, model and analyse the gaze of ASD children in two social contest: listening and speaking (Mohammad et al.). Gaze was analysed based on a set of features extracted from the analysis of video recording such as fixations and shifts. ASD children showed more eye-contact with respect to control group when NAO was speaking and less fixation while they were listening.

Another interesting study was about the use of kinect for the analysis of social motor coordination in typically developing children and in children with ASD. ASD children showed less synchronization capabilities than control children.

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The Michelangelo Project is co-funded from the European Union's Seventh Framework Programme (FP7/2007-2013) under grant agreement n° #288241