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.

News
In 2006, Pluto was reclassified as a 'dwarf planet'
scienceBut will it be reinstated?
News
Jennifer Lawrence at the Vanity Fair Academy Awards party in February 2014
people12 undisclosed female victims are seeking $100m in damages
Arts and Entertainment
Adam Levine plays a butcher who obsessively stalks a woman in Maroon 5's 'Animals' music video
music'Animals' video 'promotes sexual violence against women'
News
people Biographer says cinema’s enduring sex symbol led a secret troubled life
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Voices
voicesI like surprises - that's why I'm bringing them back to politics, writes Nigel Farage
News
Bear and hare woodland scene from John Lewis Christmas advert
newsRetailer breaks with tradition, selling real festive fir trees online for the first time
Arts and Entertainment
Anthony Horowitz will write the next 007 novel
booksAnthony Horowitz to write new instalment in spy series for 2015
News
British actor Idris Elba is also a DJ and rapper who played Ibiza last summer
people
News
people

Kirstie Allsopp has waded into the female fertility debate again

Sport
Kicking on: Nathaniel Clyne is relishing the challenge of the Premier League after moving from Crystal Palace
footballSurprises include a first ever call-up for one Southampton star
Voices
4 May 2013: The sun rises over Tower Bridge in London. Temperatures across the UK could be higher than several European holiday destinations by Monday, including parts of Italy and France (Andy Hepburn/PA)
voices
News
The moon observed in visible light, topography and the GRAIL gravity gradients
science

...and it wasn't caused by an asteroid crash, as first thought

News
Researchers say a diet of fatty foods could impede smell abilities
scienceMeasuring the sense may predict a person's lifespan
News
newsGlobal index has ranked the quality of life for OAPs - but the UK didn't even make it into the top 10
Extras
indybest
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

HR Advisor - East Anglia - Field-based

£35000 per annum: Ashdown Group: To be considered for this position you will n...

General Cover Teacher

£110 - £130 per day: Randstad Education Reading: We have opportunities for Cov...

Maths Teacher

£110 - £130 per day: Randstad Education Reading: Maths Teacher required to tea...

Digital Fundraising Analyst/Web Analyst - West Sussex - Permanent - £30k DOE

£25000 - £30000 Per Annum Excellent benefits: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd:...

Day In a Page

Italian couples fake UK divorce scam on an ‘industrial scale’

Welcome to Maidenhead, the divorce capital of... Italy

A look at the the legal tourists who exploited our liberal dissolution rules
Tom and Jerry cartoons now carry a 'racial prejudice' warning on Amazon

Tom and Jerry cartoons now carry a 'racial prejudice' warning on Amazon

The vintage series has often been criticised for racial stereotyping
An app for the amorous: Could Good2Go end disputes about sexual consent - without being a passion-killer?

An app for the amorous

Could Good2Go end disputes about sexual consent - without being a passion-killer?
Llansanffraid is now Llansantffraid. Welsh town changes its name, but can you spot the difference?

Llansanffraid is now Llansantffraid

Welsh town changes its name, but can you spot the difference?
Charlotte Riley: At the peak of her powers

Charlotte Riley: At the peak of her powers

After a few early missteps with Chekhov, her acting career has taken her to Hollywood. Next up is a role in the BBC’s gangster drama ‘Peaky Blinders’
She's having a laugh: Britain's female comedians have never had it so good

She's having a laugh

Britain's female comedians have never had it so good, says stand-up Natalie Haynes
Sistine Chapel to ‘sing’ with new LED lights designed to bring Michelangelo’s masterpiece out of the shadows

Let there be light

Sistine Chapel to ‘sing’ with new LEDs designed to bring Michelangelo’s masterpiece out of the shadows
Great British Bake Off, semi-final, review: Richard remains the baker to beat

Tensions rise in Bake Off's pastry week

Richard remains the baker to beat as Chetna begins to flake
Paris Fashion Week, spring/summer 2015: Time travel fashion at Louis Vuitton in Paris

A look to the future

It's time travel fashion at Louis Vuitton in Paris
The 10 best bedspreads

The 10 best bedspreads

Before you up the tog count on your duvet, add an extra layer and a room-changing piece to your bed this autumn
Arsenal vs Galatasaray: Five things we learnt from the Emirates

Arsenal vs Galatasaray

Five things we learnt from the Gunners' Champions League victory at the Emirates
Stuart Lancaster’s long-term deal makes sense – a rarity for a decision taken by the RFU

Lancaster’s long-term deal makes sense – a rarity for a decision taken by the RFU

This deal gives England a head-start to prepare for 2019 World Cup, says Chris Hewett
Ebola outbreak: The children orphaned by the virus – then rejected by surviving relatives over fear of infection

The children orphaned by Ebola...

... then rejected by surviving relatives over fear of infection
Pride: Are censors pandering to homophobia?

Are censors pandering to homophobia?

US film censors have ruled 'Pride' unfit for under-16s, though it contains no sex or violence
The magic of roundabouts

Lords of the rings

Just who are the Roundabout Appreciation Society?