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Predicting Disorders

The Associated Press, Los Angeles, May 4, 2000

A new test aimed at helping doctors predict whether newborn children will develop autism or mental retardation confirms that such disorders are present at birth and are not the result of nurturing, researchers said. Autism likely arises from a combination of genetic defects and exposure to toxic chemicals, viruses or other environmental substances, according to the California Birth Defects Monitoring Program, which is run jointly by the state and the March of Dimes. The crucial period for such factors is the early weeks of pregnancy as the central nervous system forms, the researchers said.

A Potentially Huge Impact

"I don't use the word breakthrough lightly, but that is what this [test] looks like to me," said Dr. John Harris, chief of the program. "This could potentially have a huge impact on society." The findings, reported Wednesday at a San Diego meeting of the American Academy of Neurology, could lead to better treatment for patients and new ways to prevent the disorders, Harris said. Experts cautioned that the results have not yet been formally published and reviewed by other scientists.

Some parents believe that autism can be caused by adverse reactions to disease vaccinations because many children develop the first signs of the mental disorder after immunization at 18 months. A team from the monitoring program examined stored blood samples collected from 249 infants during the 1980s. The researchers found unusually high levels of four proteins associated with brain development in nearly all the samples from children who later were diagnosed with autism or mental retardation. None of the proteins appeared in infants who developed normally.

Exciting But Not Conclusive

"This really is an exciting finding, but it doesn't mean scientists have a specific test for autism, since mentally retarded children had the same elevated protein levels," Dr. David Amaral said. Amaral is director of the MIND Institute at the University of California, Davis, which provided part of the funding for the study. For both mental retardation and autism, this is the first time a clear biological marker has been identified at such an early age, said Walter Herlihy, president of Repligen Corp. The company is testing a hormone called secretin as a potential treatment for autism. "I'm going to go back and incorporate this in our clinical trials to see if the markers are present in older children as well," he said. To validate its own research, the monitoring program is preparing to study as many as 5,000 autistic children, said Dr. Judith K. Grether, the study's principal researcher. The findings will be compared to tests of several thousand healthy children serving as a control group, she said. The validation study is expected to take five years to complete.

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