Brain scan detects autism in 15 minutes
11 August 2010
A new technique developed at the Institute of Psychiatry (IoP)
at King’s College London can identify autism from MRI scans of the brain
in just 15 minutes.
Tested so far only in adults, the technique can identify autism with
over 90% accuracy. The method could lead to the screening for autism
spectrum disorders in children in the future.
The team used an MRI scanner to take pictures of the brain’s grey
matter. A separate imaging technique was then used to reconstruct
these scans into 3D images that could be assessed for structure,
shape and thickness — all intricate measurements that reveal Autism
Spectrum Disorder (ASD) at its root. By studying the complex and
subtle make-up of grey matter in the brain, the scientists can use
biological markers, rather than personality traits, to assess
whether or not a person has ASD.
is a lifelong and disabling condition caused by abnormalities in
brain development. It affects about one per cent of the UK
population (half a million people), the majority of these being men
(4:1 male to female). Until now, diagnosis has mainly relied on
personal accounts from friends or relatives close to the patient — a
long and drawn-out process hinged on the reliability of this account
and requiring a team of experts to interpret the information.
Dr Christine Ecker, a Lecturer in the Department of Forensic and
Neurodevelopmental Sciences from the IoP, who led the study, said:
"The value of this rapid and accurate tool to diagnose ASD is
immense. 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. We now look forward to testing if
our methods can also help children."
Professor Declan Murphy, Professor of Psychiatry and Brain
Maturation at the IoP, who supervised the research, said: "Simply
being diagnosed means patients can take the next steps to get help
and improve their quality of life. 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. Clearly
the ethical implications of scanning people who may not suspect they
have autism needs to be handled carefully and sensitively as this
technique becomes part of clinical practice."
Professor Christopher Kennard, Chair of the Medical Research
Council’s (MRC) Neuroscience and Mental Health funding board, said:
"Bringing together the knowledge gained from neuroscience in the
laboratory and careful clinical and neuropsychological evaluation in
the clinic has been key to the success of this new diagnostic tool.
"In fact, this approach to research is a crucial theme throughout
the MRC’s strategy. 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."
The research studied 20 healthy adults, 20 adults with ASD, and
19 adults with ADHD. All participants were males aged between 20 and
68 years. After first being diagnosed by traditional methods (an IQ
test, psychiatric interview, physical examination and blood test),
scientists used the newly-developed brain scanning technique as a
comparison. The brain scan was highly effective in identifying
individuals with autism and may therefore provide a rapid diagnostic
instrument, using biological signposts, to detect autism in the
1. Describing the brain in autism in five dimensions —
MRI-assisted diagnosis using a multi-parameter classification
approach. Journal of Neuroscience 11 August 2010.
The research was undertaken using the AIMS (Autism Imaging
Multicentre Study) Consortium, which is funded by the UK Medical
Research Council (MRC). Support
funding was also provided by the Wellcome Trust and UK National
Institute for Health Research (NIHR).