MRC Boosts Autism Research in National Brain Awareness Week, UK


Funding for a major new clinical trial to develop communication skills for pre-school autistic children and their parents has been unveiled by the Medical Research Council (MRC) today. It is one of two new awards for studies in autism and autism spectrum disorders (ASD) that together have received funding of approximately £1.5 million.
The four-year PACT trial (Pre-school Autism Communication Trial), led by Professor Jonathan Green at the University of Manchester, will study the effectiveness of a treatment to enhance parent/child communication and the social and language development of the child. Families will attend sessions with a therapist every two weeks for six months to learn new ways of understanding and communicating with their autistic child, with monthly booster sessions for a further six months. A pilot study of this treatment, published last year, showed promising initial evidence of its effectiveness.

The multi-site trial, developed in collaboration with the National Autistic Society, will involve 144 children on three sites in Manchester, Newcastle and London.

Professor Jonathan Green said:

“This is the first large-scale intervention study of its kind in autism. We hope that it will provide a new evidence base for autism service planning and help to change the face of service provision both in the UK and overseas. Because the treatment helps communication, it improves a parent’s sense of competence and involvement with their child, as well as the child’s development. Parents from our focus groups have indicated that this is central to what they need from an intervention”.

The second study, led by Professor Dermot Bowler at City University London, aims to understand why adults with Asperger’s Syndrome (AS) have good memory for facts but less effective recall for how they fit into remembered events. By improving the knowledge base of the way people with AS experience the world around them, research will help relatives, educators and carers to plan better treatment and educational programmes.

These awards, together with four made in July 2004, are funded by a £2.75 million Department of Health and Scottish Executive funding allocation to take forward the recommendations of the 2001 MRC Review on Autism. This last tranche of projects to strengthen research into autism has required approximately £0.4 million of additional MRC funding.

Professor Colin Blakemore, Chief Executive of MRC said:

“There has been very little systematic research into effective treatments for autism. In funding these two projects, the MRC hopes that solid research foundations can be established.

“MRC’s 2001 Review of Autism Research identified some of the successes in autism research but also highlighted current gaps in knowledge. These studies and their predecessors in 2004 address those gaps. Furthermore, we hope that this significant investment across a diverse set of projects will provide long-term benefit by supporting an increase in the UK research capacity in this area.”

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

In September 2004 a MRC funded study, published in The Lancet, provided a comprehensive assessment of the measles-mumps-rubella (MMR) vaccine and autism. It concluded that there is no evidence to support a link between MMR and the subsequent development of autism.

The MRC co-funded awards announced in July 2004 comprised: a new study to find out more about the role of environmental risks in the development of autism and autism spectrum disorders (ASD); a collaborative brain imaging study at the Institute of Psychiatry, King’s College London, aimed at unravelling the differences in brain function that give rise to ASD; and studies at the University of Oxford, and the Institute of Child Health, London, to understand more about how cognition – the ability to take on board and process information – relates to behaviour in people with ASD.

The Medical Research Council (MRC) is a national organisation funded by the UK tax-payer. Its business is medical research aimed at improving human health; everyone stands to benefit from the outputs. The research it supports and the scientists it trains meet the needs of the health services, the pharmaceutical and other health-related industries and the academic world. MRC has funded work which has led to some of the most significant discoveries and achievements in medicine in the UK. About half of the MRC’s expenditure of £450 million is invested in its 40 Institutes, Units and Centres. The remaining half goes in the form of grant support and training awards to individuals and teams in universities and medical schools.
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