Detecting learning difficulties

Scientists in Aberdeen have been awarded almost £177,000 to develop a method to assess brain disorders in children.

About one in 20 children are affected by difficulties, which arise from neurodevelopmental disorders, such as autistic spectrum disorder (ASD), attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and developmental co-ordination disorder (DCD).

Despite the relatively high numbers of children with these problems, there is a desperate need for an improved method of assessment, which is both reliable and straightforward to use.

Currently children thought to have these problems undergo four separate assessment procedures, which are time consuming, intensive and require significant training for the staff which operate them.

There are also significant waiting times before children can have an initial assessment of their problem. The UK average waiting time is 46 months. The average waiting time in the Aberdeen area is between 15 and 24 months.

Now scientists at the University of Aberdeen have been awarded funding from the Scottish Enterprise Proof of Concept scheme, which helps commercialise leading research.

The project, which is a collaborative venture between the University’s Psychology and Child Health departments, involves the design and development of a computer driven tool that will be more powerful than existing methods of diagnosis.

Dr. Mark Mon-Williams, Senior Lecturer at Psychology, said: “Currently if you have a child who may have a neurodevelopment disorder, the initial assessments of that child are literally a pen and paper effort, along with some practical testing. This is very time consuming and in desperate need of modernisation. If we can prove the concept of our idea, our device could revolutionise assessment procedures for a very large number of children.”

The researchers believe their PC-based device will be low cost, with the potential to be used in schools, which could reduce demand on over-stretched NHS clinics and paediatric services.

Dr. Mon-Williams added: “The Scottish Executive have brought in new legislation which states that children have to be assessed within a certain time. Child health services are already struggling to cope. We hope that our tool could reduce pressure on services and enable children to be assessed far more rapidly.”