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Autism and ADHD: using state-of-the-art brain scanning techniques to spot problems early

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Autism spectrum condition (ASC) and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) are neurodevelopmental disorders. Both are common conditions, with ASC affecting around one in 100 UK children – and ADHD up to five in every 100.1,2 With no cures, children can experience lifelong difficulties. Dr Tom Arichi at King’s College London is using specialised scans to measure key chemicals in newborn babies’ brains – to understand their role in shaping early neurodevelopment and look for changes in children who develop problems. He hopes this could lead to ways for doctors to identify which children will develop these conditions earlier so that they can get the help they need sooner.

How are children’s lives affected now?

A child with ASC may have difficulties in communicating with and relating to other people. They often see, hear and feel the world differently from others. Children with ADHD tend to have a short attention span, find it hard to concentrate and are often restless and impulsive.

“Neurodevelopmental conditions like ASC or ADHD will have a long-term, wide-ranging impact on the lives of children and their families,” says Dr Arichi.

Although ASC and ADHD are distinct, they show considerable overlap and many children have symptoms of both conditions – and so they may have shared roots in early brain development. Identifying which children are vulnerable to developing difficulties as early as possible is crucial so that they can get the correct care and support.

“Developing tests that can help doctors to identify children with neurodevelopmental difficulties at an earlier age will enable families to get help sooner and may even help us develop new treatments,” says Dr Arichi.

How could this research help?

“Our aim is to improve our understanding of early brain development – and to identify changes in newborn babies’ brains that can help doctors spot problems sooner,” says Dr Arichi.

The researchers are exploring the role of two brain chemicals – glutamate and GABA – in shaping the developing brain.

“We think that imbalances could play a role in the differences in brain processing which underlie the issues experienced by children with ASC or ADHD,” explains Dr Arichi.

The researchers will use a cutting-edge, non-invasive scanning technique called magnetic resonance spectroscopy to precisely measure the levels of these chemicals inside the brains of newborn babies – around half who are at a higher risk of developing a neurodevelopmental condition due to their family history.

 “If we can spot changes to these brain chemicals in babies’ who later develop difficulties, this could lead to new tests that can identify them as early as possible – and also lay the foundations for identifying and testing new life-changing treatments in the future,” says Dr Arichi.


  1. National Institute for Health and Care Excellence, Clinical Knowledge Summaries: Autism in Children!backgroundsub:2 [website accessed 26 August 2018]
  2. Sayal, K., et al, ADHD in children and young people: prevalence, care pathways, and service provision. Lancet Psychiatry. 2018; 5(2): 175-186.





Project Leader Dr Tom Arichi, MBChB MRCPCH PhD
Project Team Dr Enrico De Vita, PhDDr Grainne McAlonan, MBBS PhD
Project Location Department of Perinatal Imaging and Health, Centre for the Developing Brain, King’s College London, St Thomas’ Hospital, London
Project Location Other Department of Biomedical Engineering and Imaging Sciences, King’s College LondonDepartment of Forensic and Neurodevelopmental Sciences, Institute of Psychiatry, King’s College London
Project duration 3 years
Date awarded 30 July 2018
Project start date 1 October 2018
Project end date 30 September 2021
Grant amount £199,968
Grant code GN2728

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