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Monday, 5 March, 2001, 09:54 GMT
Causes of autism probed
The causes of autism are still unclear
A study is to be launched to try to establish once and for all what causes autism.

The Department of Health will join forces with the Medical Research Council (MRC) to conduct the study.

The research will take on board the views of both experts and ordinary people who have had experience of the condition.

The aim is to obtain a clear and comprehensive picture of what is currently known about the condition, and how researchers can most effectively undertake research into its causes.

Consumer input is vital so that lay people can contribute to the process

Professor Eve Johnstone, University of Edinburgh
A recent study by the Autism Research Unit at Sunderland University found that rates of autism are ten times higher than 10 years ago.

There is continuing concern in some quarters that the condition may be linked to the controversial measles, mumps and rubella vaccine - although this has been dismissed by government experts.

A Department of Health spokesman said: "This information will help to identify the areas where future research is needed which will help scientists develop high quality proposals for research funding."

The work will be overseen by psychiatrist Professor Eve Johnstone of the University of Edinburgh.

Public role

She said she was delighted that the public would play an active role.

"Consumer input is vital so that lay people can contribute to the process and feel that the review has taken account of their concerns."

A series of meetings, which will take place between now and the summer, will allow in-depth discussion of the topic by scientists, lay members, practitioners and interested parties such as the National Autistic Society.

The MRC will then prepare a report in the autumn for the Department of Health and for wider circulation to provide advice to policy-makers, patients, interest groups, researchers and the public.

The new study will look at the causes of autism more broadly than the MRC's earlier expert review which examined evidence around links between the condition and MMR (measles, mumps, rubella) immunisation.

That study, which finished in April last year, concluded there was no new evidence to suggest a causal link between MMR vaccination and autism.

The National Autistic Society (NAS) welcomed the research.

A spokesman said: "We recognise this is an initial stage in a long process to gaining a better understanding of autism.

"Much research is required to fully establish the causes of autism. It is likely there will be a number of interacting causes, both environmental and genetic."

Autism is a lifelong developmental disability that affects the way a person communicates and relates to people around them.

Children and adults with autism are unable to relate to others in a meaningful way.

Their ability to develop friendships is impaired as is their capacity to understand other people's feelings.

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See also:

15 Feb 01 | Health
Autism rates 'not rising'
09 Feb 01 | Health
MMR 'cleared' of autism link
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