KING’S COLLEGE LONDON (US)—For the first time, a quick brain scan can identify adults with autism with more than 90 percent accuracy. The method could lead to a screening for autism spectrum disorders in children.

The team at King’s College London in the U.K. 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 3-D images that could be assessed for structure, shape, and thickness—all intricate measurements that reveal autism spectrum disorder (ASD) at its root.

Details are reported in the Journal of Neuroscience.

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 value of this rapid and accurate tool to diagnose ASD is immense,” says study leader Christine Ecker, a lecturer in the forensic and neurodevelopmental sciences department. “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.”

ASD is a lifelong and disabling condition caused by abnormalities in brain development. It affects about one percent of the U.K. 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.

“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,” says Declan Murphy, professor of psychiatry and brain maturation, who supervised the research.

“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,” Murphy adds.

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 new 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 future.

The research was funded by the Medical Research Council in the U.K. Support funding was also provided by the Wellcome Trust and National Institute for Health Research.

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