Professor Declan Murphy studies the link between abnormal brain development and autism. He spoke to Sarah Harrop about leading EU AIMS, the biggest individually-funded autism research project in the world and follow-on from his work on the major MRC-funded study UK AIMS.
Why do autism research?
Autism is much more prevalent than we once thought: we used to think it affected around one in 120 people but we now know it’s more like one in 80. Whether cases are increasing or we’re diagnosing it differently, we’re much more aware that autism must be addressed. Having autism significantly increases your risk for other serious mental health problems such as ADHD, depression and anxiety disorders.
We’re also beginning to understand the enormous cost of autism, both to the individual and to society. In terms of economic burden, it’s the most costly neuropsychiatric disorder currently in the US and the UK.
How does autism affect people?
A person with autism has extreme difficulties understanding social nuances like facial emotion and voice intonation, so it’s hard to interact socially. They can find it hard to establish friendships and loving relationships.
That’s just the social side. People with autism also have difficulty with communication — both how to use language and picking up on how others use language. They may also have repetitive, stereotyped behaviours — insisting on sameness, keeping their environment and routine as similar as possible.
It’s also very difficult for the families of people with autism, who are going to see their child facing challenges socially, educationally and employment-wise.
EU AIMS was launched in March. What is EU AIMS and how does it follow on from UK AIMS?
With UK AIMS we were able to show for the first time that people with autism have significant biological differences from ‘neurotypicals’ and that those differences are related to severity of behaviour, and may help predict who will get autism. If it hadn’t been for that study, we wouldn’t have the intellectual foundation for EU-AIMS.
EU-AIMS stands for European Autism Interventions — A Multicentre Study for Developing New Medications. It has attracted investment of €29.9 million and we’ve formed a network of research groups and pharmaceutical companies acrossEurope to develop new treatments for autism.
That’s a lot of money. Why is such a huge investment needed?
This is a big question and it requires a big investment. There are lots of different components to autism and it’s likely to have many different causes, genetic and environmental. So we need to look for the common aspects — are there genetic factors in families with a high risk of developing autism that teach us things that could be applied to everyone with autism, for example?
We also need to look for the differences between patients by identifying sub-groups and individuals who may have a different biology than others, so that we can develop treatments specifically for them. We need to replicate these differences between patients in animal models and stem cells.
We’re hoping to come up with new drug targets for industry to investigate within the next five years.
What’s different about EU-AIMS?
We’re trying to break down the barriers between different fields of research. For example, our network will get stem cell researchers or animal model researchers to work on a fundamental scientific question together with people who do human clinical work and vice versa.
We’ll have ways for each group to inform others about their work and results, in real time, and allow scientists around the world to access this information too so they can bring in their expertise — it’s going to be massive.
Where might we be with autism research and treatment in 10 years’ time?
I hope that we will have effective treatments — and that these will be ‘personalised’ to people’s particular needs. Autism will become less stigmatised as people become aware that it’s not the fault of your parents and the way you were raised but is a difference in the way that your brain developed.
Clinicians will also need to re-think how they see autism and non-specialists must recognise that not all autism patients are children with intellectual disabilities. A significant proportion of people with autism are of normal intellect, and they grow up! So I hope there will be increased recognition of older people with autism and ways to treat them.