Purdue Researchers to Use Telehealth to Diagnose Autism in Infants

By Eric Wicklund

March 06, 2018 – Researchers at Purdue University will be putting telehealth to the test to see if a remote patient monitoring platform can be used to diagnose autism in infants.

The five-year study, funded by the National Institutes of Health, aims to equip selected parents of high-risk infants with fragile X and other neurogenic syndromes with a telehealth kit. The kits includes a tablet, heart monitor, LENA vocal recorder and vest, items to collect saliva for cortisol measurements, and toys.

The families enrolled in the project will be taught how to conduct activities that are typically done in a lab or clinic, including eye movement exercises and heart activity monitoring, to help track the child’s attention, play behaviors, social communication and motor skills.

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“About half of our sample will have autism, and what we learn from their developmental milestones can help us specifically identify what risk factors predict autism,” Bridgette Tonnsen, an assistant professor of clinical psychology and the project’s lead researcher, said in a release issued by the university. “We are partnering with the parents to coach them on how to do the research in their homes where the children will be more comfortable rather than traveling long distance to a lab. This will be more efficient, cost-effective, more family-friendly and, I think, as a result we will be able to collect more powerful data.”

Tonnsen and her research team will select about 50 people from Indiana to test the telehealth platform, before recruiting families from across the country for the RPM program.

“Autism intervention in general is very time intensive and costly, so it becomes a question of resources and how to allocate resources and help families actually access those resources,” she told Indiana’s National Public Radio station WBOI. “We’re trying to modify our tasks so parents can administer them and we can coach them live in the home to do that.”

Healthcare providers and clinical researchers are using telehealth and mHealth tools and technology to move treatment for a wide range of health issues from the doctor’s office or clinic to the home, where clinicians can monitor a patient in a more natural environment. The technology allows doctors to not only diagnose health concerns earlier, but determine how one’s home environment and routines affect care management and coordination.

Just last month, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration gave initial approval to a mobile health platform developed by Cognoa that helps parents tracks their child’s progress at home and share that data with clinicians, who then might be able to diagnose signs of autism.

“(T)here is a profound, unmet need for earlier and more accurate diagnoses of behavioral health conditions which we know can create life-changing results for children and their families,” Brent Vaughan, the California-based company’s CEO, said in a press release. 

Two years ago, research done by the University of Iowa found that a telehealth platform can help parents of autistic children provide better care at home, while reducing treatment costs.


Clinicians and researchers like Tonnsen, meanwhile, are hoping these digital health tools can pick up clues that might not be detected in a lab or clinic, enabling them to diagnose and begin treatment earlier.

“While we have made a lot of progress in autism as far as understanding what the symptoms look like, and how to treat and support families, we are still lacking reliable markers of autism before the first year,” she said. “The brain changes rapidly during the first year of life, so if we are not detecting children until they are three or four we are missing a great opportunity to support their development. We certainly don’t want to rush a diagnosis, but having some pre-diagnostic interventions could significantly help these children for the long-term.”