Thanks to our wonderful supporters, since the beginning of the year we were able to fund a series of pioneering research projects, which will help us to better understand autism and inspire solutions to support autistic people and their families – today and in generations to come.

Here are some of the project we are funding this year. If you would like to help us fund even more research, please consider making a donation today. Thank you.

1. Could Oxytocin help in social situations?

We continued funding a project that is analysing brain scans following the administration of an oxytocin nasal spray, with a particular attention to hormone levels. The long term objective is to understand the effects of oxytocin as an aid to help autistic people in social situations, and whether it should be made widely available to autistic adults.

2. Hormones and biomarkers in pregnancy

What causes variation in autistic traits in the general population and why autism is more common in boys? We are further funding this area of work to understand whether there is a relationship between maternal hormone levels and autistic traits in the child, with the hope to identify biomarkers and lead to earlier diagnosis.

Researchers will look at ultrasound scans of the pregnant mother and at the analysis of serum samples taken from the mother, checking hormone levels, insulin levels and other biomarkers, to find patterns that could explain long term brain development and eventual development of autistic traits.

3. Autism and the criminal justice system

A new research project, tackling a sensitive but incredibly important topic, that will look to inform us about possible reasonable adjustments that could be made in order that lawyers, judges and the court system conduct fair trials when autistic individuals are involved.

4. Learning and uncertainty in autism

We know from previous finding that autistic people’s learning is improved in stable environments; however it’s still unclear how, exactly, unstable conditions affect learning. 

A lot of the data that is needed to improve predictions is already available. Our funding will help researchers look further into the existing data while matching it with EEG scans to study the neural underpinnings of learning under uncertainty.

We hope that this research will answer important questions about the types of environment that autistic individuals respond to better, support the development of autism friendly classrooms or even allow for the development of specific behavioural therapies to manage anxiety.

5. Investigating the role of NRXN1 in autism

We are continuing to fund a ground-breaking project that uses induced pluripotent stem cell (iPSC) technology to understand more about the role a specific gene – called Neurexin 1 (NRXN1) has in autism.

Bringing together researchers from the ARC, the Laboratory of Regenerative Medicine at Cambridge University and the Department of Basic and Clinical Neuroscience at Kings College London, this project will look to fill the gaps in our knowledge around the NRXN1 gene.

6. Are autistic people at higher risk for developing cancer?

Previous research suggests that people with autism and their relatives may be at higher risk for developing cancer. There are 43 genes which are to be considered key markers for both cancer and autism, and another 77 mutations that are also common in both cancer and autism.

However, although the genetic evidence for this association is convincing, other type of research that looks at medical records has yielded mixed results.

For the first time ever, researchers will look at anonymized medical records of patients across the UK, to look further into the link between autism and cancer.

7. Vulnerability in schools: The National Pupil Database Study

A lot of the Autism Research Centre’s work is focussed on vulnerability amongst autistic people. But we know that young people, in particular, have specific challenges. For example, we already found in previous studies that young people often miss out of school because of anxiety, depression or stress, and are at risk of dropping out if failing exams.  

Now, researchers have obtained approval from the UK’s government to use the National Pupil Database and other social care databases to examine vulnerability of children with recorded autism special educational needs. They will also carry out an additional survey study to look at teenagers over 16+ years old who are transitioning out of the education system.

We funded this study to see whether autistic children are uniquely vulnerable to certain outcomes, compared to other children with special needs and the general population, and identify areas of intervention.

8. A way to detect autism early?

An antenatal test for autism through ultrasound amniocentesis, could enable early detection - and make possible early monitoring and early intervention. In collaboration with the Sheba Medical Center in Israel, researchers will assess the effectiveness of a non-invasive index of prenatal sex steroid exposure that can be measured on an ultrasound. 

Our goal is to support research that can help understand the causes of autism, improve the diagnosis and explore interventions to ensure that autistic people receive the best possible support. For more information about how we assign funding, please click here.