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Autism research

MRC investment in autism research

The MRC’s approach to autism research is guided by the MRC Strategy for Lifelong Mental Health. Our Strategy includes autism within an approach that focuses on early life-stages and on the potential for early intervention. This builds on an MRC-led review of mental health and a forward look and review of autism that were published in 2010.

We fund autism research through the Neurosciences and Mental Health Board, through fellowships and through a number of Units and Centres:

  • MRC Cognition and Brain Sciences Unit, University of Cambridge
  • MRC Centre for Neurodevelopmental Disorders, King’s College London

Some highlights from the work that we have supported

MRC Centre for Neurodevelopmental Disorders

We fund this Centre, led by Professor Oscar Marin and colleagues at King’s College London, to research a group of disorders in which the development of the brain is disturbed. The result of this can include impaired language and non-verbal communication, as seen in conditions such as autism, as well as impaired motor function, learning and neuropsychiatric problems.

The Centre will bring together world-leading researchers in neonatology, neurology neuroscience and psychiatry with the aim of transforming our understanding of the origin of neurodevelopmental disorders, including autism, epilepsy and schizophrenia. Mechanistic and genetic studies in humans will be combined with experimental studies of brain circuits, and an exploration of the effect of environmental influences and disease susceptibility genes.

Autism Baby Siblings Research Program

We fund a programme grant for Professor Mark Johnson and colleagues at Birkbeck, University of London, University College London and the University of Cambridge to examine the development of social, attention and perception abilities in infants with a familial risk of autism. The programme combines baby-friendly neuroimaging methods, eye-tracking and touch screen tasks, parent-infant interaction, and questionnaire and clinical assessments.

Prof Johnson’s research also considers how potential early interventions, such as gaze-contingent attention ‘games’ can be made more suitable for infants at risk of autism. New imaging paradigms for tracking aspects of neurodevelopment, such as touch and sensory perception, are also being developed.

The autism genome project

We funded Professor Anthony Monaco and colleagues at the University of Oxford as part of the Autism Genome Project (AGP); an international collaboration involving researchers in the USA, Canada and Europe.

The consortium has shown that people with autism spectrum disorders have more copy number variants that disrupt genes than people in the control group. Copy number variation is caused by losses and duplications of stretches of DNA at sites across the genome.

Many of the lost or duplicated regions of DNA occur in genetic regions known to be important in autism. Of particular interest is that genes involved in both neural cell development and signalling pathways are more commonly disrupted in those with autism spectrum disorders, which could open doors for new areas of research into the mechanism of the disorder.

Pre-school autism communication trial

We funded Professor Jonathan Green at the University of Manchester to test a parent-mediated communication-based intervention for young children with autism; the pre-school autism communication trial (PACT). PACT demonstrated the efficacy of an early intervention to optimise parental interaction style to improve social-communication and repetitive symptom domains in autism.

PACT was the largest intervention trial internationally in this area and Professor Green has followed up with these children as they have got older. The PACT intervention is recommended by the National Institute for Health Care and Excellence (NICE) in the guidelines for autism.