UK scientists have developed a new type of brain scan that only takes 15 minutes and can diagnose autism in adults with over 90 per cent accuracy: they hope to develop it so it can be used to screen children for autism spectrum disorders.

Study leader Dr Christine Ecker, a Lecturer in the Department of Forensic and Neurodevelopmental Sciences from the Institute of Psychiatry (IoP) at King’s College London, and supervisor Dr Declan Murphy, Professor of Psychiatry and Brain Maturation at the IoP, and colleagues wrote a paper about their pioneering work that is to be published in The Journal of Neuroscience today, 11th of August.

Using an MRI scanner and 3D imaging techniques, Ecker, Murphy and colleagues assessed the structure, shape and thickness of of the brain’s grey matter, looking at key measurement markers of Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD).

They studied the brains of 59 male adults aged between 20 and 68 years. 20 of the participants had ASD and 19 had ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder); the other 20 were healthy controls.

The participants first underwent traditional diagnostic assessment, which included taking an IQ test, being interviewed by a psychiatrist and having a physical exam and blood test.

The researchers then tested all the participants with the new brain scan and 3D image method and found it was highly effective in identifying the individuals who had been diagnosed with autism.

They concluded that the method provided a rapid diagnostic tool based on biological markers to detect autism.

Anyone who has experience of ASD knows the huge difference having a rapid test that uses physiological markers as opposed to personality traits to assess whether a person has ASD would make, as Ecker explained to the press:

“It could help to alleviate the need for the emotional, time consuming and expensive diagnosis process which ASD patients and families currently have to endure.”

She said she and her colleagues were now looking forward to testing the method for helping children.

Murphy explained that people with autism are affected in different ways:

“Some can lead relatively independent lives while others need specialist support or are so severely affected they cannot communicate their feelings and frustrations at all.”

“Simply being diagnosed means patients can take the next steps to get help and improve their quality of life,” he said.

However, he cautioned that there are also ethical implications, for instance people who may not suspect they have autism must be handled carefully and sensitively should this method become part of standard clinical practice.

The study comes under the auspices of the AIMS (Autism Imaging Multicentre Study) Consortium, which is funded by the UK’s Medical Research Council, with additional assistance from the Wellcome Trust and National Institute for Health Research (NIHR).

Professor Christopher Kennard, who chairs the MRC’s Neuroscience and Mental Health funding board, spoke of the impact that investing in this new method, and others like it, can make:

“We know that an investment like this can dramatically affect the quality of life for patients and their families.”

“The more we understand about the biological basis of autism, the better equipped we will be to find new ways of treating those affected in the future,” he added.

About 1 per cent of the UK population, in the region of half a million people, are affected by Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), a lifelong and disabling condition caused by abnormalities in brain development.

More men than women have ASD (the ratio is one woman to every four men) and current diagnostic methods rely heavily on information gleaned from personal accounts given by patients’ close friends and relatives. The process takes a long time involving many experts to interpret the information.

“Describing the brain in autism in five dimensions – MRI-assisted diagnosis using a multi-parameter classification approach.”
Christine Ecker et al.
The Journal of Neuroscience, in press, anticipated publication date 11August 2010.

Sources: King’s College London, MRC.

Written by: Catharine Paddock, PhD