Israeli Scientists Measure Sniff-Response In Children to Detect Autism

Rehovot researchers discover breathing response to foul & pleasant scents in children with autism are different than other children.

By i24news


A team of Israeli scientists has discovered autistic children’s unique sniffing habits may help doctors diagnose the condition at a much younger age than was previously possible.

Young girl smelling flower – Photo: AFP/Marty Melville

Doctoral student Liron Rozenkrantz and Professor Noam Sobel of the Weizmann Institute of Science in Rehovot believe the key to detecting autism in children may be reliant on the latter’s response to pleasant and unpleasant odors.

The study, titled “A Mechanistic Link between Olfaction and Autism Spectrum Disorder,” examines internal action models (IAMs), brain templates for sensory-motor coordination based on sensory reactions.

Researchers looked at the sensory reactions of 18 children with autism spectrum disorders, and compared the results to those of 18 regularly developing children. The children were given unpleasant and pleasant odors to sniff. Scientists measure the sniff-response to both the pleasant smells, such as rose or shampoo scents, and the unpleasant smells, which included sour milk and rotten fish.

According to the scientists, the typically developing children shifted their breathing patterns when confronted with an agreeable odor or a putrid smell. The response time to smells was incredibly quick, taking half a second on average.

Interestingly, autistic children did not adjust their breathing when presented with the different smells.

Using the sniff test, researchers correctly identified 17 of the 18 normally developing children, as well as 12 of the 18 children with autism.

The diagnostic accuracy (81 percent success rate) of the test means that very young children with no outwards signs of impairment may be diagnosed with the “sniff response” method, scientists wrote in Current Biology journal, which was published on Thursday.

The sniff test allows for the discovery of a “novel marker implying a mechanistic link between the underpinnings of olfaction and autism spectrum disorder directly linking an impaired IAM with impaired social abilities,” the study said.

“We can identify autism and its severity with meaningful accuracy within less than 10 minutes, using a test that is completely non-verbal and entails no task to follow,” Prof Sobel told the Daily Mail. “This raises the hope that these findings could form the base for development of a diagnostic tool that can be applied very early on, such as in toddlers only a few months old. Such early diagnosis would allow for more effective intervention.”

Despite the interest the experiment has generated, researchers said the method was not yet a stage where it could be used during a clinical trial. Scientists are hoping to hone in on the specific disorders of the autism spectrum linked to olfactory responses.


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