Autism spectrum conditions and ADHD - early diagnosis in babies at risk | Children's Charity

Autism spectrum conditions and ADHD - early diagnosis in babies at risk

Project LeaderDr T Arichi MBChB MRCPCH PhD
Project team
  • Dr E De Vita PhD
  • Dr G M McAlonan MBBS PhD
LocationDepartment of Perinatal Imaging and Health and Department of Biomedical Engineering and Imaging Sciences, St Thomas' Hospital, King's College London
Other locations
  • Department of Forensic and Neurodevelopmental Sciences, Institute of Psychiatry, King's College London
Duration3 years
Grant awarded30 July 2018
Provisional start date1 October 2018
Provisional end date30 September 2021
Grant amount£199,968.00
Grant codeGN2728

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Neurodevelopmental disorders such as autism spectrum conditions (ASC) and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) are common in childhood. ASC is estimated to affect one per cent of children in the UK and typically leads to impaired social interaction and communication. ADHD is more common affecting up to five percent of UK children and is characterised by overactivity, impulsive behaviour and difficulties in paying attention. Having one or both of these conditions makes life difficult for both children and their families, seriously affecting education, employment chances and quality of life. We know that a family history of ASC or ADHD puts a child at a higher risk of developing these conditions. These researchers want to see if a sophisticated scanning technique which measures the levels of chemical messengers (known as neurotransmitters) in the brain could allow earlier diagnosis of neurodevelopmental disorders in newborn babies known to be at risk. 

The research project

Animal studies suggest that the balance between two particular neurotransmitters, glutamate and GABA, can lead to abnormal brain development.  The team plans to use a state-of-the-art magnetic resonance imaging method called magnetic resonance spectroscopy (MRS) which can measure the levels of chemicals in the living brain safely and precisely. Using standard scanners, and also a new, highly powerful scanner, they will measure glutamate and GABA levels in the brains of 80 newborn babies. Half the babies will be at high risk of developing a neurodevelopmental disorder (due to an affected close family member) and half will have no increased risk (controls). They will then compare results between the two groups to see if there are any differences. This research could lead to a new, safe, non-invasive technique to identify babies who may develop difficulties later in childhood, enabling early support and intervention where appropriate. Studying neurotransmitter levels in the brain in early life could also help to inform new treatment strategies for currently incurable disorders such as ASC. 

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