06:36am Sunday 26 January 2020

Unlocking the causes of autism spectrum disorder

The Autism Research Network of New Zealand’s “Minds for Minds” campaign will be launched on Monday 12 August at the University’s Centre for Brain Research. This is a unique community-researcher partnership with the aim of bringing together researchers, health professionals and the community from across the country to facilitate understanding and treatment options for ASD.

ASD is a group of complex brain development disorders that affects around one in 100 New Zealanders. Learning more about the underlying causes may allow people to be diagnosed earlier and more easily, may help them to better understand their condition, and may eventually inform any educational programme or other desired treatment.

A Minds for Minds scientist, geneticist Professor Russell Snell from the School of Biological Sciences, says that the aim is to contribute to the worldwide effort to unlock the causes of autism, “I have no doubt that New Zealand researchers will make a very significant contribution to the better understanding of ASD and the development of specific treatments. This is of course in collaboration with our international counterparts.”

One of the new research projects within the network will investigate the genes and microbes of people with ASD. The researchers are encouraging New Zealanders on the autism spectrum – whether high-functioning or severely affected – to register on a database from which samples will be used to study the causes of the disorder.

“International studies have indicated that the genetics of autism is very complex, with many genes involved,” says award-winning young scientist Dr Jessie Jacobsen, who last year received a Rutherford Discovery Fellowship for her research on the genetics of ASD.

“We want to understand our New Zealand populations, which will contribute to the international effort and may identify genetic variations that are specific to New Zealanders.”

Dr Mike Taylor is studying the microbial communities (microbiome) in the gut of people with ASD. “This is an area that’s getting a lot of attention internationally,” he says. “It’s clear that there is some link between the microbiome and ASD, but exactly what is happening is an open question at the moment.”

The Minds for Minds campaign aims to bring together people with an interest in autism from around the country, and also raise funds for the research effort.

Other members of the network to date include University researchers Dr Jo Montgomery, whose work on the connections between neurons in ASD captured headlines last year, functional biologist Associate Professor Klaus Lehnert, developmental neuropsychologist Associate Professor Karen Waldie, and psychologist Professor Ian Kirk; as well as clinical neurologist Dr Rosamund Hill who has a severely autistic son.

For more information visit: www.arnnz.org

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