By examining pediatric patients with anxiety and autism, a new study by The Children's Hospital of Philadelphia researchers hopes to better understand how to diagnose, measure, and treat children with autism who have anxiety.

John Herrington, PhD, associate director of the Developmental Neuroimaging Laboratory at the Center for Autism Research, in July was awarded a grant by the Dublin, Ireland-based pharmaceutical company Shire. The grant will fund Dr. Herrington's investigation of anxiety in pediatric patients with autism spectrum disorders (ASD) through December 2013.

Since receiving funding, Dr. Herrington has begun recruiting and testing research participants, with a goal of eventually recruiting 150 patients, ages 7 to 18, across four groups. The first group will have ASD but no anxiety, and the second group will have both ASD and anxiety. The third group will consist of children who are developing normally, without a psychiatric diagnosis, while the fourth will be made up of children who have an anxiety disorder but who do not have ASD.

Though the overall purpose of Dr. Herrington's study is to examine anxiety in children with ASD, "the best way to do that is to look at anxiety in typically developing populations as well," he said.

In addition to MRI scans, questionnaires, and computerized tests, the researchers will use eyetracking technology to determine whether ASD-related anxiety is associated with abnormal eye gaze patterns. Eyetracking technology has the potential to be significantly useful in ASD research, as systems like the one being used by Dr. Herrington's team can track behavior while placing few demands on participants.

Dr. Herrington's study has the potential to benefit a large population, for as many as 40 to 50 percent of children with ASD might also suffer from clinical anxiety, Dr. Herrington said. According to a recent estimate by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's Autism and Developmental Disabilities Monitoring Network, roughly 1 in 88 children has ASD.