Harvard Mental Health Letter

Searching for early signs of autism spectrum disorders

Researchers seek to identify biomarkers and behaviors to enable earlier diagnosis.

Autism spectrum disorders (ASDs) continue to generate debate in the mental health field. This has been fueled in part by the ongoing controversy about whether childhood vaccines somehow trigger these disorders in some children. Although the Institute of Medicine has issued three comprehensive reports reviewing the scientific literature — the most recent published in 2004 — and each time concluded that vaccines are safe, the issue refuses to go away.

In June 2007, for instance, a federal "vaccine court" began hearing testimony about whether a vaccine triggered autism in a girl who is now 12 years old. Hers was the first of three test cases scheduled to be heard by the U.S. Court of Federal Claims in 2007. (An additional 4,800 petitions concerning vaccine safety have been filed with the same court.) The court has said it will not issue a ruling until after the last of several written briefs are submitted in 2008.

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