By Stephen Weir
HAMILTON, Ontario (Friday, September 17, 2021) — A new peer-reviewed study — by Canadian researcher and professor, Dr. Krissy Doyle-Thomas, titled, “Investigating Sensory Response to Physical Discomfort in Children with Autism Spectrum Disorders Using Near-Infrared Spectroscopy” — has just been published by the American Public Library of Science’s PLOS One peer-reviewed, open-access, scientific journal.
The ground-breaking study looks at how well a portable, inexpensive, brain-imaging tool was, in measuring discomfort in children with Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD), without the children having to say they were uncomfortable.
There is not a lot of published research in this area, however, such research can have a major impact on clinical care for people with communication challenges.
Dr. Doyle-Thomas is one of the first researchers to explore the use of Near-Infrared Spectroscopy (NIRS) to measure how the brain responds to pain and discomfort in children with ASD.
“Some people with ASD have a difficult time telling a doctor, or caregiver, that they are in pain, because of communication challenges, or they might not recognize pain or discomfort in their body,” writes Dr. Doyle-Thomas.
“It is possible that pain can go untreated, without a way to measure it that does not rely on a person saying, ‘I am in pain’. Our study provides promising evidence that an inexpensive brain-imaging tool, called Near-Infrared Spectroscopy, can detect discomfort in people with ASD, without them having to say it,” she explains.
To induce discomfort in the study, teenagers with ASD placed their hands in a bath of unpleasantly-cold water for as long as they could bare it. The discomfort of the cold water felt like having their hand outside in winter, without a glove. Once the teenagers could no longer bare it, they moved their hands to a bath of lukewarm water, and their brain responses were measured during these activities.
In all participants, the brain responded very differently when the hand was placed in cold water, compared to lukewarm water. In the cold-water task, the brain responded differently in teenagers with ASD, compared to teenagers without ASD.
These results suggest that NIRS could be used to detect discomfort in individuals with ASD. Furthermore, there is a possibility that NIRS could be used, as a clinical tool, to provide a quick and meaningful measure of pain and discomfort to help the clinical team.
Dr. Doyle-Thomas explained that these results are promising, and more studies are needed, in larger groups, to understand the results more thoroughly.
A Professor in Brain Disorders Management, and Mental Health & Disability Management at Mohawk College in Hamilton, Ontario, Doyle-Thomas is also a Medical Neuroscientist.
Her imaging research uses Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) and NIRS to understand how the brain looks, and works, in individuals with Autism Spectrum Disorders.
Dr. Doyle-Thomas collaborated with the Holland Bloorview Kids Rehabilitation Hospital and the Province of Ontario Neurodevelopmental Disorders (POND) Network on this study.
Dr. Doyle-Thomas’ study has been posted on American Public Library of Science’s PLOS One website at: journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0257029.