FRIDAY, Jan. 16, 2009 (HealthDay News) -- A saliva test might one day help doctors detect some forms of autism, potentially leading to early treatments for children with the developmental disorder, Italian researchers say.
Scientists will need to confirm the results of the study released this month, which looked at just 27 people with autism. Follow-up research has failed to confirm the findings of similar small studies, one specialist said.
Still, "there is much hope for the future in autism research, and this study offers a possible new approach," said the specialist, Dr. Andrew Zimmerman, a pediatric neurologist and director of medical research at the Center for Autism and Related Disorders at the Kennedy Krieger Institute in Baltimore.
An estimated one in 150 people is diagnosed with autism, a condition that makes it difficult for people to communicate and understand the emotions of others.
The causes of autism remain unclear in about 90 percent of children who have symptoms, Zimmerman said. "There are no tests we can do to identify underlying biological signs consistently," he said. "In other words, we need clues to the biological processes that will shed light on the mechanisms that lead to autism, and provide clinical markers of the process."
Reliable tests "will be able to identify children at risk or affected early in the process so that intervention with various forms of therapy can be started early or used for prevention," Zimmerman said.
In the new study, published in the Jan. 2 issue of the Journal of Proteome Research, researchers said they have a saliva test that holds promise.
The researchers said the test showed that the saliva of 18 of 27 autistic patients revealed abnormal proteins. It's possible that the proteins could be a sign of problems in brain development during infancy, said the study's lead author, Massimo Castagnola, a researcher with Università Cattolica in Rome.
There are some caveats, however, Castagnola said. For starters, autistic patients typically aren't cooperative. And it's not clear what treatment would follow a positive diagnosis.
Future research is needed to determine the connection between test results and signs of autism, Castagnola said.
Zimmerman, who had no role in the study but is familiar with its findings, cautioned that autism comes in many forms, and a test of proteins in saliva "might not correlate specifically in certain types of patients with autism and might not be consistent over time."
Still, the new study offers "exciting possibilities" for understanding autism through the cells and chemical processes in the body, he said.
To learn more about autism, visit Autism Speaks.