JUN 21, 2018 6:18 AM PDT

Can a Smartphone Diagnose Autism?

“There’s an app for that” is a common saying that shows how far technology has come. No matter what we need to do---avoid a traffic jam, order food, or edit photos--- it seems like it’s possible to just pull out a smartphone and get it done.

Health apps are particularly popular, with fitness trackers, weight-loss tips, and even ways to track blood sugar, chemotherapy side effects, and cardiovascular health. One specialized app claims to be able to screen children for signs of autism. Is it really possible to do this? A study from Duke University researchers says it’s a strong possibility.

First, it’s important to know that Duke Health developed the app and published the study about its effectiveness. It starts by asking for consent from caregivers and parents, who then fill out survey questions on behavior they see that they believe is troubling or questionable. The camera on a smartphone is used to collect videos of children while they watch specific movies that can sometimes produce behaviors unique to autism. The app was first released in 2015 and is available for both iOS and Android phones.

These videos are then sent to Duke Health servers which are set up with coding software and facial recognition algorithms. The software developed by Duke looks at facial expressions and parses these expressions into categories. In one example, there is a video of soap bubbles floating across a screen. Most young children would find that a happy image, or be interested in where the bubbles go. The app reads their expressions and then the data is fed into the algorithms. The software then takes the information provided by parents and caregivers and compares it to the child’s behavior. The results showed that parents who reported a high number of autism-like behaviors also had children who showed little or no joy while looking at videos like the bubbles.

The problem with current methods of autism screening, especially in very young children, is that it normally takes place in a clinical setting such as a therapist’s office or a lab. Children in their natural environments are much more at ease than in a lab or doctor’s office. This kind of evaluation is also not accessible for many families. Another common problem, the “observer effect” which posits that the act of observing something changes the outcome, also impacts results.

The app was downloaded more than 10,000 in one year. There were 1,756 families who participated in the Duke study. Together they completed 5,618 surveys and contributed 4,441 uploaded videos. Of those videos, usable data was extracted from 88% of submissions. Geraldine Dawson, Ph.D., Director of the Duke Center for Autism and Brain Development was the co-leader of the study. She explained, “This demonstrates the feasibility of this approach. Many caregivers were willing to participate, the data were high quality and the video analysis algorithms produced results consistent with the scoring we produce in our autism program here at Duke." Check out the video from Duke about the study, to learn more about how two professors developed a way to help families navigate autism.

Sources: Duke University  Autism Speaks  Nature Digital Medicine

About the Author
  • I'm a writer living in the Boston area. My interests include cancer research, cardiology and neuroscience. I want to be part of using the Internet and social media to educate professionals and patients in a collaborative environment.
You May Also Like
NOV 30, 2019
Genetics & Genomics
NOV 30, 2019
Depression is Not Caused By Genetics
Since the discovery of DNA, attributing the cause of illnesses to genetic reasons became trendy. Depression was no exception- with hundreds of studies havi...
DEC 08, 2019
Neuroscience
DEC 08, 2019
How living in Extreme Environments Affects the Human Brain
Scientists had suspected for some time that living in extreme environmental conditions- such as in harsh climates and in social isolation- may have adverse...
DEC 29, 2019
Cell & Molecular Biology
DEC 29, 2019
How close are we to a simple blood test for Parkinson's Disease?
Parkinson’s Disease (PD) alters nerve cells in the brain that produce the neurotransmitter dopamine. Famously regarded as the “happiness”...
DEC 31, 2019
Neuroscience
DEC 31, 2019
How PTSD Develops in the Mind
Close 1 in 4 people who experience severe trauma develop Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Now, a recent study has identified how these traumatic expe...
FEB 03, 2020
Cell & Molecular Biology
FEB 03, 2020
Brain Organoids May Not be Living Up to the Hype
Cells can be grown in special ways to create three-dimensional, miniature models of organs. But how good are they?...
FEB 11, 2020
Neuroscience
FEB 11, 2020
The Gut: Your Second Brain
It turns out, "going with your gut" may be a more scientifically concrete phrase than we thought. The gut actually houses its own nervous system,...
Loading Comments...