Smell Test Could Provide Earlier Diagnosis of Autism

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A smell test may become a new way to diagnose autism spectrum disorder earlier on based on new research that has found chuldren with autism process smells in a different fashion from peers without the condition.

Liron Rozenkrantz, a Ph.D. student at the Weizmann Institute of Science in Israel, and colleagues enrolled a total of 36 children in a study, divided evenly between kids with autism and typically developing children. There were 17 boys and 1 girl in each group. The average age of the children was 7 years old.

The kids were asked to sniff both pleasant and stinky odors. While typically developing children adjusted their sniffing — by restricting the flow of air through their nose — within 305 milliseconds of getting a whiff of an unpleasant smell, the kids with autism did not adjust their sniffing at all when the stinky odor was presented, the researchers reported in the journal Current Biology.

That difference in responding to smells between the two groups of children was able to correctly diagnose children as having autism or not 81% of the time. In addition, the more pronounced the inability to adjust sniffing to unpleasant odors, the more severe symptoms were seen in children with autism.

“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,” Noam Sobel, PhD, the head of Weizmann’s Olfaction Research Group who also worked on the study said in a statement.

“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,” he added.

Smell Test Could Provide Earlier Diagnosis of Autism
Unlike typically developing children, most kids with autism fail to adjust their sniffing to stinky odors.

Imagine the way you might smell a rose. You'd take a nice big sniff to breathe in the sweet but subtle floral scent. Upon walking into a public restroom, you'd likely do just the opposite--abruptly limiting the flow of air through your nose.

Now, researchers reporting in the Cell Press journal Current Biology have found that people with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) don't make this natural adjustment like other people do. Autistic children go right on sniffing in the same way, no matter how pleasant or awful the scent.

The findings suggest that non-verbal tests related to smell might serve as useful early indicators of ASD, the researchers say.

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