QF Research Center Works on Early Diagnosis of Autism
Qatar Biomedical Research Institute (QBRI), part of Qatar Foundation’s Hamad Bin Khalifa University (HBKU), signed an agreement with Argus Cognitive, in association with Rush University, Chicago, USA, in October 2021, to support the early diagnosis of Autism Spectrum Disorder. This collaboration supports the aim of QBRI’s Neurological Disorders Research Center of making a positive impact on the health of people in Qatar and beyond.
What is the Argus diagnostic tool – how does the machine work and how can someone be diagnosed through this tool?
The tool aims to bring machine learning and artificial intelligence into the ADOS-2 (Autism Diagnostic Observation schedule-2). It is a test that takes about 45 minutes. Through the tool, the diagnosis will not depend on the experience of the person conducting the test – as is the case in most medical centers where the doctor, based on his or her own experience, observes the patient, and bases their perception of the condition and determines whether the patient has autism or not.
With the new diagnosis tool, machine learning and artificial intelligence will bring objectivity to the test.
The test is conducted in a room with three cameras – one focused on the patient, another on the person doing the test, and the third giving a full view of the room where the test is taking place. The person conducting the test wears an eye tracking glass to look at the expressions of the patient while interacting with them.
This data is then gathered and used in machine learning and artificial intelligence. At the end of the test, the machine will decide if the patient has autism or not.
What is the significance of the eye-tracking tool in diagnosing autism?
At QBRI, we recently proved the success of an innovative eye tracking screening tool in diagnosing Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) in children – a major advancement in the early diagnosis of ASD. Children are presented with visual stimuli that include short videos and photos, through a computer display connected to a remote eye-tracking device.
As for the Argus diagnostic tool, we can use it for anyone beyond the age of one year old. This means any child who can interact and play with others can be checked to see if they have ASD.
When will the eye tracking tool be available in medical centers?
The English version of the eye tracking technology is ready, and we are working on commercializing it. Our Arabic version will be ready for release within six months, and we will adopt this technology for the first time in several medical centers not only in Qatar, but in the Arab region. This will have a significant positive impact on people with autism in these communities.
Our team is also working on another related project, which is the establishment of the first ASD registry in Qatar for those aged 13 and above. This is being done in a collaboration between QBRI, Qatar Foundation’s Renad Academy [a school under QF’s Pre-University Education that supports children with autism and their families], Shafallah Center, Qatar Autism Families Association, and private centers that provide intervention services for individuals with ASD.
What is the significance of early diagnosis of autism?
The earlier we detect autism, the better the results of the treatment. Therefore, if we detect autism at an early age, the chances of treatment become greater, and intervention services such as behavioral, speech and occupational therapy become more effective.
The most common age for diagnosing the condition is five years. Some families who do not pay attention to any disorder in their child, thinking that their behavior is normal, will discover the condition of their child only when they send them to school. Treating this child, at this age, will not have the same effect as opposed to treating the child at the age of one and a half or two years.
It is therefore very important to get an early diagnosis, and this is what we focus our efforts on as we work to detect the disorder early, whether through eye-tracking technology, or ADOS-2 testing.
What is the lifetime cost of autism treatment in Qatar, and what is the impact of early detection on reduced cost of treatment?
We have no published data for the cost in Qatar, but as we know, in Qatar, all children with disabilities are offered free healthcare, as well as education intervention and assistance. Had these services not been offered for free, these would cost a lot. For example, in the US, it costs more than US $1 million to take care of a child with autism, excluding educational and some interventional services.
How big is the increase in autism cases globally and locally?
In 2019, we published a study which showed that, in Qatar, for every 87 newborn babies, there was one with autism.
Globally, every two years, the cases are increasing. For example, in 2020, USA data showed one in every 53 people had autism, but now it is one in every 45 people.
We still don’t know the exact causes of autism because it is a wide spectrum, but we know that there are many genes involved, with many environmental factors that act as a trigger mechanism. Such environmental factors include older parental age, low birth weight, prematurity, and maternal use of valproic acid or thalidomide during pregnancy, among others.
Qatar Foundation (QF) is a non-profit organization made up of more than 50 entities working in education, research, and community development.
Our unique ecosystem—supported by partnerships with leading international institutions—is built on initiatives that address our most pressing challenges, create global opportunities, and empower people to shape our present and future.