A groundbreaking new test can predict the future emergence of autism in young children and infants using a single strand of their hair, according to researchers.

The test aims to detect autism before symptoms emerge. That could lower the average age of diagnosis, allowing for earlier interventions and better health outcomes, according to a study published last month in the Journal of Clinical Medicine.

The test has been granted a breakthrough designation by the FDA, which could speed up its approval.

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With the help of laser technology and machine learning, the test, developed by LinusBio, analyzes a variety of metals found in scalp hair that are associated with autism, researchers said.

The sample hair, a massive database of information, functions similarly to an ice core sample, providing researchers with a detailed snapshot of environmental factors over time.

“Our platform can provide a ‘molecular movie’ of a prolonged period of time,” Dr. Manish Arora, one of the study’s coauthors, told McClatchy News. “Just one centimeter of hair captures about a month worth of data, and we can analyze it in four to six (hour) increments.”

The test measures the metabolism of metals ingested over time, Arora said. Some, such as copper and zinc, are key nutrients, while others are considered toxic.

Administered to patients in the U.S., Sweden and Japan, the test accurately predicted the emergence of autism about 81% of the time, the study reports.

Still, the test is not intended to be the sole method of detecting the developmental disability. It’s designed as a diagnostic aid to be used in concert with other methods.

While it is in the early stages of development, Arora hopes the test will receive CLIA certification by the end of the year, and eventually full FDA approval.

The test marks a shift in the medical community, which has historically focused on genetic factors when researching autism, as opposed to environmental factors, like infant and fetal exposure to toxic metals and the deprivation of nutritional elements.

Over the longer term, the technology behind the test will serve a much broader purpose in health care, Arora said.

Aurora said the test could become as common as blood tests. “We can detect thousands of biochemical features, but our technology’s main advantage is the ability to go back in time and look at targeted time periods … The potential application of this technology in diagnosis and treatment development is enormous.”

© 2023 McClatchy News
Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC

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