Major new research into early detection of autism and ADHD

The world-leading Babylab is launching an innovative new study with partners across Europe

The world-leading Babylab at Birkbeck today launched a new Europe-wide study of the early emergence of autism and ADHD. With over £2.5 million in funding, Professor Mark Johnson and his team are now embarking upon the Studying Autism and ADHD Risk in Siblings (STAARS) project, which will map brain development from birth in order to identify the earliest signs of these lifelong social communication and attention disorders. The STAARS project is the first study of this size and scope to examine risk of autism and ADHD from birth, and will involve over 400 families from across Europe and the UK. The research will focus on infants who have older siblings with autism or ADHD as these infants are at particularly high risk for these disorders.

The research team are now looking for infants aged three-ten months old who have an older sibling with a formal diagnosis of autism or ADHD whose parents are happy for them to participate in the study. Charlotte Warner, whose son Freddie was involved in a previous Babylab study looking at early markers of autism said: “It’s great fun, and a really nice way to spend an afternoon with your baby. You learn a lot just from talking to the staff at the Babylab about what they’re looking for and what some of the markers and identifying features of autism are: things that you wouldn’t necessarily have thought about as a parent.”

This study builds on ground-breaking research published by Birkbeck’s Babylab scientists in 2012 which detected signs of autism in babies as young as six months old. Autism and ADHD affect around 4% of the population in the UK. Although parents may notice symptoms of these conditions from infancy, children are often not diagnosed until they are in nursery or school. Earlier diagnosis of these children would help make it possible to design earlier and more effective interventions that may prevent symptoms from developing, and improve the quality of life for individuals with autism/ADHD and their families.

Warner, whose oldest son, Alex, was diagnosed with autism at age 4 and with ADHD at age 6, said: “Having had a diagnosis for Alex before the age of four would have made a huge difference to him, to his siblings and to the family. The earlier you know that your child has a life-long condition that can be significantly improved with the right intervention, the sooner you can start researching what those interventions are, where the evidence base is for interventions that actually work in ameliorating the signs and symptoms of autism. The sooner you get the diagnosis, the sooner you can help your child be the best that they can be.”

Professor Mark Johnson said: “We are very excited to be embarking on what is one the most innovative collaborative research projects into early markers of autism and ADHD to have been carried out to date. Combining the data and expertise at the Babylab in London with that of our partners across Europe and North America will enable us to drive discoveries that will make a real impact on the lives of people with autism or ADHD and their families.”

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