By Stephen Weir

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.

This ground-breaking study looks at how well a portable, inexpensive, brain imaging tool was in measuring discomfort in children with 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 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 hand 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 hand to a bath of lukewarm water. 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.

Dr. Krissy Doyle-Thomas is a Professor in Brain Disorders Management, and Mental Health & Disability Management at Mohawk College in Hamilton, Ontario Canada. She is also a Medical Neuroscientist. Her imaging research uses Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) and Near Infrared Spectroscopy (NIRS) to understand how the brain looks and works in individuals with Autism Spectrum Disorders.

Dr. Doyle-Thomas collaborated with Holland Bloorview Kids Rehabilitation Hospital and the Province of Ontario Neurodevelopmental Disorders (POND) Network on this study.

Dr. Doyle-Thomas’ study Investigating Sensory Response to Physical Discomfort in Children with Autism Spectrum Disorder using Near-Infrared Spectroscopy, has been posted on the American Public Library of Science’s PLOS One website.