Scanner test that spots autism aged two by noticing weaknesses in the brain's wiring devised by doctors

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UPDATED:

01:07 GMT, 26 June 2012


Breakthrough: A new test has been developed to diagnose autism in children

Breakthrough: A new test has been developed to diagnose autism in children

A simple test that diagnoses autism in children as young as two has been devised by doctors.

The technique uses EEG scalp scanning equipment used for decades to diagnose epilepsy to spot weaknesses in the brain’s wiring.

In a study of more than 1,000 children aged between two and 12 it was up to 90 per cent accurate.

Its inventor, from Boston Children’s Hospital, hopes it will lead to earlier diagnosis and better treatment.

The
test is also suitable for use in Third World countries that lack the
specialist staff normally needed to make a definitive diagnosis.

Diagnosis
can be lengthy and complicated process involving psychological tests
and the average child is not diagnosed until the age of five and a half.

But
Dr Frank Duffy, a medic and engineer, believed there must be a simpler
way, and decided to see whether some of the common symptoms of the
condition can be traced back to changes in brain activity.

Some
research teams are using MRI scanners to do this but Dr Duffy chose the
simpler and cheaper EEG, in which electrodes attached to the scalp tune
into brain activity.

This revealed striking differences in brain wiring between autistic children and youngsters without the condition.

Connections between brain regions were in general poorer in children with autism.

The differences were particularly apparent in the regions that control language, the journal BMC Medicine reports.

Dr Duffy said: ‘It seemed nearly
impossible to even hope that such a consistent pattern could be obtained
by a technique that has been around since the 1930s.’

He
now wants to see if EEGs can be used to pick up Asperger syndrome,
which although related to autism, leaves children with different needs.
It is diagnosed, on average, at the age of 11.

Other possibilities include predicting same cases of autism ahead of the first symptoms.

Costs: Some research teams are using MRI scanners to do the same job but Dr Duffy chose the simpler and cheaper EEG

Costs: Some research teams are using MRI scanners to do the same job but Dr Duffy chose the simpler and cheaper EEG

Caroline Hattersley, of The National Autistic Society, said: ‘We welcome any research that may help us to understand autism better and improve diagnosis times for those with the condition.

‘In a recent survey we commissioned, 50 per cent of people with autism and their families said it was difficult to get a diagnosis and 55 per cent said the process took too long.

‘While further testing of EEG scans is still required, any tools that help identify autism at a younger age could potentially improve a person’s quality of life by allowing the right support to be put in place earlier.’

Today, more than one in 100 British children has autism or a related condition such as Asperger’s Syndrome – a ten-fold increase on 30 years ago.

But with many cases doing undiagnosed, the true figure could be much higher.

Symptoms vary from child to child but usually revolve around difficulty with social interaction, difficulty with communication and a need for routine and repetitive behaviour.

Patients are usually treated through a combination of speech, behavioural and other therapies.

Although drugs can be given to control symptoms such as aggression or hyperactivity, there is no cure.

The growing number of cases is attributed to greater awareness of the condition and better diagnosis, as well as environmental factors such as pollution.