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What are neurodevelopmental disorders?
Disorders of early brain development are often called neurodevelopmental disorders and include autism spectrum disorder (ASD), intellectual disability, motor disability (eg cerebral palsy), seizures, learning disabilities (eg dyslexia), and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).
It is a large group of conditions where the integrity and function of the nervous system is damaged during critical periods of brain development: while growing in the womb, or during the first two years of life.
Children with neurodevelopmental disorders can experience a wide range of symptoms including reduced emotional regulation, low muscle control, problems with social integration, and impacted learning ability.
Understanding mechanisms is key to improving treatments
In Australia, rates of neurodevelopmental disorders such as autism are rising. It’s difficult to diagnose early, and effective treatments are limited. Often, the only treatment that’s available for children is to manage their symptoms.
We have limited understanding of what actually causes neurodevelopmental disorders, and we do not understand the mechanisms behind why they develop. Understanding cause and mechanisms will allow us to develop effective and targeted treatments.
One neurodevelopment disorder that many people are familiar with, and that is subject to these challenges, is autism.
Autism is characterised by difficulty in social communication, restricted interests, and repetitive behaviours. It impacts self-esteem, quality of life, academic success and long-term mental health. For most children, there is no known cause, and there are no effective treatments.
The Neurodevelopment flagship unites expertise from across the Melbourne Children’s Campus in clinical care, neuroimaging and laboratory disease modelling. This multidisciplinary approach allows us to better understand, diagnose and treat conditions that disrupt early brain development.
Our vision is to develop personalised treatment strategies to improve the lives of children with neurodevelopmental disorders.
Our current research: Pathways to autism
At MCRI we are taking an innovative approach to understand the causes of neurodevelopmental disorders, beginning with a project called “pathways to autism”. The findings from this project will provide important insights into other disorders of early brain development such as ADHD and intellectual disability.
The Neurodevelopment flagship has the resources, capacity and leadership to design and deliver a program of research that can uncover the mechanisms that underpin autism. We are using a novel genomics-focused approach that capitalises on unique data, platforms and resources in neuroscience, genetics, diagnostics and well-phenotyped large groups of patients. Our findings will develop a template for the study of many neurodevelopmental disorders beyond autism.
Neurodevelopmental disorders are a major focus of the Melbourne Children’s Campus, and through our links with The Royal Children’s Hospital we have first-hand understanding of the challenges face by families of children with autism and other neurodevelopmental disorders.
Our multidisciplinary team is composed of clinicians in neurology, developmental and behavioural paediatrics, psychology and allied health who work closely with neuroimaging, genetic and laboratory scientists.
We are supported by world-class MCRI research facilities including the Translational Bioinformatics Lab, the Stem Cell Core, the Drug Disease Modelling Facility, biobanking services and the Developmental Imaging Group.
With a common vision, our researchers are accelerating our understanding of neurodevelopmental disorders and developing the new interventions we need. This will improve children’s lives and provide evidence to drive policy changes, giving all Australian families access to more accurate diagnosis and effective, personalised treatment.
What are our outcomes?
So far, research has been unable to find a single cause for autism. Our work will begin by looking at specific genetic disorders for which autism is a primary symptom, for example neurofibromatosis type 1. Using this novel precision medicine approach we will deliver:
- understanding of the role of genetic mechanisms in autism
- a comprehensive, multidimensional pipeline for investigating autism
- more precise and early screening, diagnosis and treatment
- robust clinical trials to develop evidence for implementation into clinical practice.
We believe that our approach to autism can also be applied to other debilitating neurodevelopmental disabilities including epilepsy, ADHD, intellectual disability and cerebral palsy.
More information about specific projects underway can be found at the following pages: