Role of environmental risks in the development of autism

Funding for a new study to find out more about the role of environmental risks in the development of autism and autism spectrum disorders (ASD), has been announced by The Medical Research Council. It is one of four new awards for research projects using a variety of approaches to study autism.

The environmental research, led by Professor Jean Golding at the University of Bristol, will investigate the association of ASD with immunisations, problems with delivery, maternal and infant infections, fetal exposure to toxins, and maternal diet. Whether other conditions, such as coeliac disease or digestive problems, play a role in the development of ASD will also be considered.

The £400K study will be one of the largest investigations of environmental risk factors in ASD and will analyse lifestyle and genetic influences by studying data from the 14,000 children already taking part in the ‘Children of the 90s’ study. The ‘Children of the 90s study’ was set up to understand the ways in which the physical and social environment interact with genetic inheritance to affect children’s health, behaviour and development.

Professor Golding said:

“Because of the number of children we’ll be looking at, and the quality and type of data available, our study should help find the answers to a number of currently unanswered questions about the environmental risks for developing autism spectrum disorders.”

Overall the awards total £1.6M for autism research. They have been funded out of the £2.75M allocated by the Department of Health and the Scottish Executive to take forward the recommendations of the 2001 MRC Review on Autism. The remaining funds will be used to support more grants in the near future.

The other three high-quality projects funded include a collaborative brain imaging study, led by Professor Declan Murphy at the Institute of Psychiatry, King’s College London, aimed at unravelling the differences in brain function that give rise to ASD, and studies led by Dr Kate Nation, at the University of Oxford, and Dr Tony Charman, at the Institute of Child Health, London, to understand more about how cognition, or the ability to take on board and process information, relates to behaviour in people with ASD.

Health Minister, Dr Stephen Ladyman, said:

“It is very important to take forward good quality research into autistic spectrum disorders. I warmly welcome the MRC’s announcement about funding for these four interesting projects.”

Professor Colin Blakemore, Chief Executive of the MRC, said:

“I’m very pleased to announce the funding of this important research. The MRC’s 2001 Review of Autism Research, identified some of the successes in autism research but also highlighted current gaps in knowledge. These wide ranging, high-quality studies are the first to be funded out of the money allocated by the Department of Health and the Scottish Executive, specifically to address those gaps.”

The MRC has always funded research into autism through its own grant schemes, and it is currently spending around £1.3m a year. It will continue to do so outside of the Department of Health and Scottish Executive funding allocation.

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