Scientists have developed a new tool that can quickly and affordably screen children for foetal alcohol spectrum disorder (FASD) – could this lead to better accessibility?
Scientists at the University of Southern California (USC) and Duke University, USA, along with Queen’s University, Ontario, Canada have developed a tool that leverages computer vision and machine learning to screen children for foetal alcohol spectrum disorder in low-resource environments.
What do you know about foetal alcohol spectrum disorder?
It is estimated that millions of children will be diagnosed with foetal alcohol spectrum disorder (FASD). This condition, when not diagnosed early in a child’s life, can give rise to secondary cognitive and behavioural disabilities.
“The new screening procedure only involves a camera and a computer screen and can be applied to very young children. It takes only 10 to 20 minutes and the cost should be affordable in most cases,” said Chen Zhang, a doctoral candidate from the Neuroscience Graduate Program at USC
“The machine learning pipeline behind this gives out objective and consistent estimations in minutes.”
While this computer vision tool is not intended to replace full diagnosis by professionals, it is intended to provide parents with important feedback so they can ensure that their child is seen by professionals and receive early cognitive learning and potentially behavioural interventions.
The tool that can tackle foetal alcohol spectrum disorder
Using a camera and computer vision, the tool essentially records patterns in children’s eye movements as they watch multiple one-minute videos, or look towards/away from a target, and then identifies patterns that contrast to recorded eye movements by other children who watched the same videos or targets.
The eye movements outside the norm were flagged by the researchers as children who might be at-risk for having foetal alcohol spectrum disorder and need more formal diagnoses by healthcare practitioners.
The technique was described in a study ‘Detection of Children/Youth With Foetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder Through Eye Movement, Psychometric, and Neuroimaging Data’ by Chen Zhang, Angelina Paolozza, Po-He Tseng, James N. Reynolds, Douglas P. Munoz and Laurent Itti, which appeared in Frontiers in Neurology.
There is no simple way of diagnosing this
Laurent Itti, a professor of computer science, psychology and neuroscience at USC, explains: “There is not a simple blood test to diagnose FASD. It is one of those spectrum disorders where there is a broad range of the disorder. It is medically very challenging, and it is co-morbid with other conditions.
“The current gold standard is subjective, as it involves a battery of tests and clinical evaluation. It is also costly.”
Itti said he and his colleagues conducted this research as they felt that a screening tool might be able to reach more children who might be at risk.
Ocular movements and neurology
For Itti, this is not the first use of computer vision to monitor ocular movements to screen for neurological and cognitive conditions.
“Sometimes people may tell you that you only use 10 percent of your brain in everyday life. But as soon as you open your eyes and process the visual world in front of you, already over 70 percent of your brain is engaged.” Itti said.
“Your ocular-motor system is so complex, that if something is going on in your brain, your eyes will give some sort of signature.”