Area of investment and support

Area of investment and support: Autism research

MRC supports and funds research into autism, focusing on early life stages and on the potential for early intervention.

Partners involved:
Medical Research Council (MRC)

The scope and what we're doing

MRC investment in autism research

MRC’s approach to autism research is guided by our strategy for lifelong mental health. This includes autism within an approach that focuses on early life stages and on the potential for early intervention. This builds on the 2010 MRC-led review of mental health and a forward look and review of autism published in 2001.

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.

Find out more about facilities and resources MRC funds.

Some of the work we have supported

MRC Centre for Neurodevelopmental Disorders

We fund this centre, led by Professor Oscar Marín 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 brings 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 are combined with experimental studies of brain circuits, and an exploration of the effect of environmental influences and disease susceptibility genes.

Autism baby siblings research programme

We funded 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 combined baby-friendly neuroimaging methods, eye tracking and touch screen tasks, parent-infant interaction, and questionnaire and clinical assessments.

Professor Johnson’s research also considered 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, were also 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 US, 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. It was the largest intervention trial internationally in this area and Professor Green has followed up with these children as they have aged. The PACT intervention is recommended by the National Institute for Health Care and Excellence (NICE) in its guidelines for autism (PDF).

Last updated: 27 July 2023

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