As National Children’s Dental Health Month comes to a close, let’s start a discussion about one of the most talked about childhood disorders: autism. Autism is a bio-neurological developmental disability that generally appears before the age of 3. It usually influences the development of the brain in the areas of social interaction, communication, and cognitive function. People with autism often suffer from other serious conditions which may include, allergies, asthma, epilepsy, digestive disorders, persistent viral infections, feeding disorders, sensory integration dysfunction, sleeping disorders, and more. While its prevalence is not impacted by race, socio-economic status, or region, it is diagnosed four times more often in boys than girls, and incidences have climbed at an alarming rate in the United States, affecting one in every 68 children. There is currently no cure for autism, but with early intervention and treatment, the symptoms related to the disability can be greatly improved and in some cases completely overcome.
Early diagnosis of autism is very difficult because symptoms vary widely, but because early intervention is so effective, scientists have been working on developing a diagnostic test. Recently, a very exciting breakthrough has been made and it involves the mouth, which scientists have often referred to as the window to your health. According to an article in the Dental Tribune, the study included the analysis of saliva samples from six autistic and six typically developing children, all aged 6-16. Researchers looked at the differences in salivary protein levels of the samples in particular. They discovered that nine proteins were significantly elevated in participants with autism, as well as three that were lower or absent in the same group. Many of these same proteins are associated with the immune system or are elevated in people with gastrointestinal issues, further suggesting the link between these conditions and the autism spectrum.
At this time, diagnosis of autism relies heavily on behavioral assessments, with no biological test available. This study, however, could establish a salivary protein complex as a potential biomarker, and researchers hope that a simple saliva test could aid in earlier diagnosis. Because early intervention greatly improves functional outcomes in people with autism spectrum disorder, the potential of such a test is astronomical. More research will of course be necessary, involving a larger number of subjects and on specific subtypes of autism, but preliminary findings are very exciting and encouraging. Dentists and doctors have learned in recent years how to identify several health conditions by looking in the mouths’ of patients, and hopefully autism spectrum disorder can be added to that list very soon.