Imaging technique speeds autism diagnoses

Doctors could diagnose autism in adults within 15 minutes using a new method that finds distinctive patterns in the brain with MRI scans and 3D computer imaging.

The technique was recently demonstrated by a team of scientists led by Dr Christine Ecker and Prof Declan Murphy at the Institute of Psychiatry (IoP) at King’s College London. After conducting the studies on dozens of adult men with and without autism the researchers reported their method has the ability to spot the syndrome with 90 per cent accuracy.

It is hoped the method could lead to the screening for autism spectrum disorders in children in the future.

ASD affects about one per cent of the UK population, which is approximately half a million people

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.

The study shows that the subtle brain abnormalities associated with autism show a distinctive pattern.

Autism expert Paul Matthews, from the Centre for Clinical Neurosciences at Imperial College, London, said Dr Ecker and Murphy used a technique that is subtly different than any used before.

‘Previously what people had done is they’ve tried to directly compare the brains of autistic subjects and healthy individuals and then asked what is different about the two brains,’ he said. ‘Rather than asking the question what is different between the two groups, they say assuming there are two groups what features distinguish the two groups best.’

ASD is a lifelong and disabling condition caused by abnormalities in brain development. It affects about one per cent of the UK population, which is approximately half a million people.

An overwhelming number of those who suffer with the condition are men, with a reported 4:1 male-to-female ratio. 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.

The research studied 20 healthy adults, 20 adults with ASD, and 19 adults with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (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.

While the King’s College researchers have stated they look forward to testing their methods on children, Matthews said it was likely that adults were needed for initial studies because it would be clearer whether they were actually suffering with autism.

‘I would presume these patients have been followed by psychiatrists for a very long time and so in that long time their diagnoses were refined and quite clear,’ he added. ‘With a child a few years old, there has been a limited amount of time to watch them develop and see their behaviours develop. There could still be some uncertainty whether there is a contributing disease that can be identified as a cause of the syndrome.’

Matthews also said more work needs to be done to determine whether this is an effective approach for early diagnosis. 

‘This work now needs to be extended to study affected children, for whom the impact of more certain prognostic information could be much greater,’ he added.

Along with earlier diagnosis, there is also hope this method could lead to the revealing of undiagnosed cases of autism.

Terry Brugha, professor of psychiatry at the University of Leicester, said: ‘Our research on 7,461 adults throughout England suggests that most adults with autism are undiagnosed… Although this method is not ready for normal diagnostic situations any step to an easier diagnosis is welcome.’

The research was undertaken using the AIMS Consortium (Autism Imaging Multicentre Study), which is funded by the MRC. Support funding was also provided by the Wellcome Trust and National Institute for Health Research (NIHR).