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Wednesday, 25 April, 2001, 05:55 GMT 06:55 UK
Possible autism test for newborns
Boy with autism
The origins of autism are little understood
A blood test at birth could reveal whether a child is likely to develop autism or suffer mental retardation, claim researchers.

Normally these conditions cannot be diagnosed until later in childhood, when their effects on the child are already pronounced.

Autism is a developmental disorder which means, in many cases, that children have problems with social interaction, and problems with verbal and non-verbal communication.

Children who have mental retardation have significantly delayed development and low IQ scores.

We... hope it will lead to better ways to treat and perhaps prevent autism

Dr Karin Nelson, researcher
Although there are as yet no treatments which can prevent or effectively treat either of these conditions, scientists at the US National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke say the finding could help doctors develop them.

The study was made possible by a huge archive of infant blood stored by the California Department of Health Services.

Researchers were able to compare concentrations of key proteins in the newborn blood of children with autism, to those who developed normally.

Elevated levels of the proteins - all growth factors associated with neural development - appeared to be linked to later diagnosis of autism or retardation.

Growth factors

The team believe that not only do the growth factors play a key role in development of the central nervous system, but also that too much of them may disrupt the normal process by which a cell develops into the correct type and moves to the right area, and dies at the right time.

Children who suffered from cerebral palsy, another disorder linked to faulty early neural development, did not have elevated levels of the proteins.

Dr Karin Nelson, the senior investigator for the study, said: "Finding that the normal regulators of brain development were different in children with autism from normal controls in the first days of life opens an exciting new avenue of research.

"We think this work will be a step to better understanding to biologic basis of autism and hope it will lead to better ways to treat and perhaps prevent autism."

The origins of autism are still controversial, with a small number of scientists suspicious about the role of a combined measles, mumps and rubella (MMR) vaccine, usually given at approximately 16 months of age.

No damning evidence

The bulk of scientific opinion suggests there is no damning evidence linking autism to the jab, and the UK authorities have insisted that it is safe.

The number of children diagnosed with some sort of autistic spectrum disorder has increased sharply over the past decade.

Advocates of the MMR theory say that this rise may at least be partly attributed to the introduction of the combined vaccine, whereas others say that improved awareness of autism means that many cases which might have been missed in the past are now being identified.

Dr Lorna Wing, a consultant psychiatrist at the National Autistic Society Centre for Social & Communication Disorders in the UK, said: "A biological test for autism would be extremely helpful. We look forward to hearing more information about the findings."

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04 Apr 01 | A-B
12 Feb 01 | A-B
Asperger's syndrome
05 Mar 01 | Health
Causes of autism probed
15 Feb 01 | Health
Autism rates 'not rising'
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