Brain scan promises to identify the hidden sufferers of autism

Autism could in future be diagnosed in 15 minutes from a brain scan – saving patients and their families years of suffering from a condition that can go unrecognised for decades.

Scientists using facial recognition software have devised a method which can distinguish the autistic brain from the normal brain with 90 per cent accuracy. The method could lead to the introduction of screening for the disorder in children.

An estimated 600,000 people in Britain are affected by autistic spectrum disorders, which affect their capacity to interact with others. Sufferers have difficulty reading social situations and responding appropriately and may lead lonely and isolated lives as a result.

The condition ranges from the mild to the severe, but half of those affected are undiagnosed. Autism is a lifelong condition that is incurable but early diagnosis allows therapy to begin which can help sufferers to learn to cope with the condition.

Scientists at the Institute of Psychiatry in London, funded by the Medical Research Council, compared MRI scans of 20 adult men, previously diagnosed with autistic spectrum disorders, with scans of 20 normal brains.

By programming the computer to "learn" the pattern of the brains of autistic individuals, using the same techniques as in facial recognition and handwriting recognition, the scientists were able to distinguish the autistic brains from the normal brains. In addition, they were able to tell how severely the individuals were affected.

Christine Ecker, who led the study published in the Journal of Neuroscience, said: "We are very excited. We have been working on this for three years. We are saying this is 'proof of concept'. But it works very well in our clinic and we hope to roll it out with the help of the NHS in a year or two. The NHS would not have to purchase any new equipment – all it requires is a software update [for the MRI scanners]. It is very cost-effective."

The research had been carried out on adults and only in men because they outnumber women with autism by four to one, but will now be extended to include women and children.

Dr Ecker, a lecturer in the department of forensic and neurodevelopmental sciences, said the current method of diagnosing autism was expensive and stressful for the patient and their family and only available in the few centres with the necessary expertise.

"It takes the whole day and involves asking embarrassing questions such as how many friends they have and how they are doing at school," she said. "We do observations with the individuals and interview the parents. You can only do it with a team of three to four clinicians, it costs £2,000 and is not available in many parts of the country. We sometimes see people aged 50 or 60 who still have no diagnosis."

The differences between the autistic brain and the normal brain are too subtle to be seen with the naked eye but with the aid of the software, scientists were able to identify five parameters where differences could be detected.

"The scanner is a non-invasive means of testing for autism. It doesn't hurt and you can even go to sleep. The [computer programme] says yes this is autism or no it is not, and also gives an indication of the severity. It is a biologically plausible method and it has a lot of implications. There is a strong need for a quicker, cost-effective biological test. We still can't cure autism but we can do a lot to help people affected cope. It is really important to identify those with the disorder as early as possible so they can get treatment," Dr Ecker said.

The programme proved less reliable at distinguishing cases of Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). The researchers plan to develop a new software program specifically to diagnose ADHD.

Declan Murphy, professor of psychiatry at the Institute, who supervised the research, said it raised challenging questions.

"Simply being diagnosed means patients can take the next steps to get help and improve their quality of life. 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."

Experts welcomed the advance but warned further studies would be needed. Professor Paul Matthews, of the Centre for Clinical Neurosciences, Imperial College London, said: "The findings suggest that sophisticated approaches for the interpretation of brain scans could help to diagnose particular forms of autistic spectrum disorder, although they do not yet offer an approach to more confident, 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."

The National Autistic Society said: "While further testing is still required, any tools which could help identify autism at an earlier stage have the potential to improve a person's quality of life by allowing the right support to be put in place as soon as possible. However, diagnosis is only the first step. It is part of a wider struggle to enable people with autism to access appropriate support at every stage of their life."

Case study: 'I went 20 years without a diagnosis'

Joe Powell, 34

Joe spent 11 years in silence. Between the ages of 15 and 26, he spoke only to his parents and his sister – with others he communicated by means of written notes.

His mutism was, he says, a symptom of his Asperger's syndrome, a mild form of autism only diagnosed when he was 20. Had it been detected earlier, he might have avoided his decade of isolation from the speaking world.

A scan of his brain conducted by the Institute of Psychiatry last week (though he was not part of the recent trial) confirmed his diagnosis on the autistic spectrum.

"If I had been diagnosed when I was a child my life would have been a lot better. I would not have had to go through all I went through. I would have had the support I needed from an early age," he said.

At school, he misbehaved, got into trouble and fell behind his peers. Then he changed schools and found, as the new shy boy, that people responded positively to him for the first time. He became obsessed with being nice and being quiet.

"It was like bulimia – I felt really guilty when I spoke and people had to reassure me it was all right. I had to be the quietest person in the world – I was scared to go into any environment where people might not be sensitive to my condition."

He lived in a care home in Manchester run by the National Autistic Society and then when his family moved to south Wales, followed them to a care home in Newport.

In the last decade he has made a remarkable recovery and is now a campaigner and national speaker on autism, living independently in his own flat and studying for a degree in English and creative writing at the University of Wales.

"There was nothing for people like me. I went for 20 years without a diagnosis," he said.

in numbers

600,000The estimated number of people in the UK with autistic spectrum disorders, including Asperger's Syndrome, a milder version of autism



4Number of men with the condition for every woman



30,000Number of people affected by classic autism, the severest kind (about five in every 10,000 cases). This figure has remained unchanged for 50 years



12-fold. The increase in autistic spectrum disorders among children in the past 30 years, according to some estimates. The reasons are thought to be improved diagnosis and awareness, and the inclusion of milder conditions in the diagnosis.



1943The year autism was first identified – it has attracted increased interest in the past decade. The condition became controversial because of a claimed link with MMR vaccine which has since been discredited.

Life and Style
tech

Sales of the tablet are set to fall again say analysts

News
A Brazilian wandering spider
news

World's most lethal spider found under a bunch of bananas

Life and Style
fashion

British supermodel and hitmaker join forces to launch a 'huge song'

Life and Style
gaming

I Am Bread could actually a challenging and nuanced title

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Sport
Mario Balotelli pictured in the win over QPR
footballInternet reacts to miss shocker for Liverpool striker
News
people
Voices
Sol Campbell near his home in Chelsea
voices
News
i100
News
Kimi the fox cub
newsBurberry under fire from animal rights group - and their star, Kimi
Sport
Fans of Palmeiras looks dejected during the match between Palmeiras and Santos
footballPalmeiras fan killed trying to 'ambush' bus full of opposition supporters
Arts and Entertainment
filmsIt's nearly a wrap on Star Wars: Episode 7, producer reveals
Life and Style
fashion
News
i100
News
<p>Jonathan Ross</p>
<p>Jonathan Ross (or Wossy, as he’s affectionately known) has been on television and radio for an extraordinarily long time, working on a seat in the pantheon of British presenters. Hosting Friday Night with Jonathan Ross for nine years, Ross has been in everything from the video game Fable to Phineas and Ferb. So it’s probably not so surprising that Ross studied at Southampton College of Art (since rebranded Southampton Solent), a university known nowadays for its media production courses.</p>
<p>However, after leaving Solent, Ross studied History at the School of Slavonic and East European Studies, now part of the UCL, a move that was somewhat out of keeping with the rest of his career. Ross was made a fellow of the school in 2006 in recognition of his services to broadcasting.</p>
TV

Rumours that the star wants to move on to pastures new

News
i100
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Lead Teacher of Thinking School Drive Team and Year 3 Form teacher

Competitive: Notting Hill Prep School: Spring Term 2015 Innovative, ambitious ...

Operations Data Analyst - London - up to £25,000

£20000 - £25000 per annum + Benefits: Ashdown Group: Operations Data Analyst -...

Programmatic Business Development Manager

£35 - £40000 per annum: Sauce Recruitment: As the Programmatic Business Develo...

Year 5 Teacher

Negotiable: Randstad Education Hull: Randstad Education is currently recruitin...

Day In a Page

Oscar Pistorius sentencing: The athlete's wealth and notoriety have provoked a long overdue debate on South African prisons

'They poured water on, then electrified me...'

If Oscar Pistorius is sent to jail, his experience will not be that of other inmates
James Wharton: The former Guard now fighting discrimination against gay soldiers

The former Guard now fighting discrimination against gay soldiers

Life after the Army has brought new battles for the LGBT activist James Wharton
Ebola in the US: Panic over the virus threatens to infect President Obama's midterms

Panic over Ebola threatens to infect the midterms

Just one person has died, yet November's elections may be affected by what Republicans call 'Obama's Katrina', says Rupert Cornwell
Premier League coaches join the RSC to swap the tricks of their trades

Darling, you were fabulous! But offside...

Premier League coaches are joining the RSC to learn acting skills, and in turn they will teach its actors to play football. Nick Clark finds out why
How to dress with authority: Kirsty Wark and Camila Batmanghelidjh discuss the changing role of fashion in women's workwear

How to dress with authority

Kirsty Wark and Camila Batmanghelidjh discuss the changing role of fashion in women's workwear
New book on Joy Division's Ian Curtis sheds new light on the life of the late singer

New book on Ian Curtis sheds fresh light on the life of the late singer

'Joy Division were making art... Ian was for real' says author Jon Savage
Sean Harris: A rare interview with British acting's secret weapon

Sean Harris: A rare interview with British acting's secret weapon

The Bafta-winner talks Hollywood, being branded a psycho, and how Barbra Streisand is his true inspiration
Tim Minchin, interview: The musician, comedian and world's favourite ginger is on scorching form

Tim Minchin interview

For a no-holds-barred comedian who is scathing about woolly thinking and oppressive religiosity, he is surprisingly gentle in person
Boris Johnson's boozing won't win the puritan vote

Boris's boozing won't win the puritan vote

Many of us Brits still disapprove of conspicuous consumption – it's the way we were raised, says DJ Taylor
Ash frontman Tim Wheeler reveals how he came to terms with his father's dementia

Tim Wheeler: Alzheimer's, memories and my dad

Wheeler's dad suffered from Alzheimer's for three years. When he died, there was only one way the Ash frontman knew how to respond: with a heartfelt solo album
Hugh Bonneville & Peter James: 'Peter loves his classic cars; I've always pootled along fine with a Mini Metro. I think I lack his panache'

How We Met: Hugh Bonneville & Peter James

'Peter loves his classic cars; I've always pootled along fine with a Mini Metro. I think I lack his panache'
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's heavenly crab dishes don't need hours of preparation

Bill Granger's heavenly crab recipes

Scared off by the strain of shelling a crab? Let a fishmonger do the hard work so you can focus on getting the flavours right
Radamel Falcao: How faith and love drive the Colombian to glory

Radamel Falcao: How faith and love drive the Colombian to glory

After a remarkable conversion from reckless defender to prolific striker, Monaco's ace says he wants to make his loan deal at Old Trafford permanent
Terry Venables: Premier League managers must not be allowed to dictate who plays and who does not play for England

Terry Venables column

Premier League managers must not be allowed to dictate who plays and who does not play for England
The Inside Word: Brendan Rodgers looks to the future while Roy Hodgson is ghost of seasons past

Michael Calvin's Inside Word

Brendan Rodgers looks to the future while Roy Hodgson is ghost of seasons past