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When it comes to ADHD and ASD, the eyes could reveal all


Investigators have found that recordings from the retina could identify distinct signals for both attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and autism spectrum disorder, providing a potential biomarker for each condition.

Can the eyes can help understand the brain? (Image courtesy of Per Jansen/University of South Australia)

Can the eyes can help understand the brain? (Image courtesy of Per Jansen/University of South Australia)

It is frequently said that ‘the eyes tell it all’, but regardless of what their outward expression may be, the eyes also could signal neurodevelopmental disorders such as ASD and ADHD according to research from Flinders University and the University of South Australia.

In what is considered by the University of South Australia as the first study of its kind,1 investigators have found that recordings from the retina could identify distinct signals for both attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and autism spectrum disorder (ASD), providing a potential biomarker for each condition.

Using the ‘electroretinogram’ (ERG) - a diagnostic test that measures the electrical activity of the retina in response to a light stimulus - researchers found that children with ADHD showed higher overall ERG energy, whereas children with ASD showed less ERG energy.

According to the university, Paul Constable, PhD, a research optometrist at Flinders University, noted that the preliminary findings indicate promising results for improved diagnoses and treatments in the future.

“ASD and ADHD are the most common neurodevelopmental disorders diagnosed in childhood. But as they often share similar traits, making diagnoses for both conditions can be lengthy and complicated,” Constable said in the news release. “Our research aims to improve this.”

Constable noted in the release that by exploring how signals in the retina react to light stimuli, investigators hope to develop more accurate and earlier diagnoses for different neurodevelopmental conditions.

“Retinal signals have specific nerves that generate them, so if we can identify these differences and localize them to specific pathways that use different chemical signals that are also used in the brain, then we can show distinct differences for children with ADHD and ASD and potentially other neurodevelopmental conditions,” he explained in the release.

Moreover, Constable pointed out in the release that the study delivers preliminary evidence for neurophysiological changes that not only differentiate both ADHD and ASD from typically developing children, but also evidence that they can be distinguished from each other based on ERG characteristics.

According to the World Health Organizationone in 100 children has ASD, with 5-8 per cent of children diagnosed with ADHD.

Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) is a neurodevelopmental condition characterized by being overly active, struggling to pay attention, and difficulty controlling impulsive behaviors. Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is also a neurodevelopmental condition where children behave, communicate, interact, and learn in ways that are different from most other people.

Co-researcher and expert in human and artificial cognition at the University of South Australia, Fernando Marmolego-Ramos, PhD, said the research has potential to extend across other neurological conditions.

“Ultimately, we are looking at how the eyes can help us understand the brain,” Marmolejo-Ramos explained.

While further research is needed to establish abnormalities in retinal signals that are specific to these and other neurodevelopmental disorders, Marmolejo-Ramos noted that what the investigators have observed so far shows that they are on the precipice of something amazing.

“It is truly a case of watching this space; as it happens, the eyes could reveal all,” he said.

According to the University of South Australia, the research was conducted in partnership with McGill UniversityUniversity College London and the Great Ormond Street Hospital for Children.


Fernando Marmolego-Ramos, PhD, Paul Constable, PhD; Discrete Wavelet Transform Analysis of the Electroretinogram in Autism Spectrum Disorder and Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder. Frontiers in Neuroscience. Published June 6, 2022. doi: 10.3389.fnins.2022.890461

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