Researchers study cry acoustics to determine risk for autism

November 27, 2012

Autism is a poorly understood family of related conditions. People with autism generally lack normal social interaction skills and engage in a variety of unusual and often characteristic behaviors, such as repetitive movements. While there is no specific medical treatment for autism, some success has been shown with early behavioral intervention.

Understanding the importance of early diagnosis, researchers at Women & Infants' Brown Center for the Study of Children at Risk in collaboration with researchers at University of Pittsburgh have been studying the cry acoustics of six-month-old infants. Their research has recently been published in Autism Research.

"Because we can measure various aspects of babies' cries from the earliest days of life, it may be possible to use this technique to identify risk for neurological problems such as autism long before we can detect behavioral differences," said Stephen J. Sheinkopf, PhD, lead researcher, psychologist at the Brown Center for the Study of Children at Risk, and assistant professor (research) in the Department of Psychiatry and Human Behavior at The Warren Alpert Medical School of Brown University.

The study examined ways in which infants at risk for autism produced cries as compared to the cries of low-risk infants. Recordings of babies' cries were excerpted from vocal and video recordings of six-month-old infants at risk for autism spectrum disorder (ASD) and those with low risk. Infants were considered to be at risk if they had an older sibling with a confirmed ASD diagnosis.

Cries were categorized as either pain related or non-pain related based on observations of the videotapes. At-risk infants produced pain related cries with higher and more variable fundamental frequency (commonly referred to as "pitch") as compared to low-risk infants. A small number of the at-risk infants were later diagnosed with an ASD at 36 months of age. The cries for these babies had among the highest fundamental frequency values and also differed in other acoustic characteristics.

"These findings demonstrate the potential of this approach for babies as young as six months of age," said Dr. Sheinkopf.
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The Brown Center for the Study of Children at Risk was established at the Warren Alpert Medical School of Brown University and Women & Infants Hospital in 2005. The mission of the Center is to stimulate outstanding interdisciplinary research, education and clinical services on the biological and social factors that determine the developmental outcome of at-risk children.

About Women & Infants Hospital

Women & Infants Hospital of Rhode Island, a Care New England hospital, is one of the nation's leading specialty hospitals for women and newborns. The primary teaching affiliate of The Warren Alpert Medical School of Brown University for obstetrics, gynecology and newborn pediatrics, as well as a number of specialized programs in women's medicine, Women & Infants is the eighth largest stand-alone obstetrical service in the country with nearly 8,400 deliveries per year. In 2009, Women & Infants opened what was at the time the country's largest, single-family room neonatal intensive care unit.

New England's premier hospital for women and newborns, Women & Infants and Brown offer fellowship programs in gynecologic oncology, maternal-fetal medicine, urogynecology and reconstructive pelvic surgery, neonatal-perinatal medicine, pediatric and perinatal pathology, gynecologic pathology and cytopathology, and reproductive endocrinology and infertility. It is home to the nation's only mother-baby perinatal psychiatric partial hospital, as well as the nation's only fellowship program in obstetric medicine.

Women & Infants has been designated as a Breast Center of Excellence from the American College of Radiography; a Center for In Vitro Maturation Excellence by SAGE In Vitro Fertilization; a Center of Biomedical Research Excellence by the National Institutes of Health; and a Neonatal Resource Services Center of Excellence. It is one of the largest and most prestigious research facilities in high risk and normal obstetrics, gynecology and newborn pediatrics in the nation, and is a member of the National Cancer Institute's Gynecologic Oncology Group and the National Institutes of Health's Pelvic Floor Disorders Network.

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