NZ scientists picked to delve into autism mysteries

A crack team of scientists has been formed in Auckland in a bid to lead the world's autism research.

The group will join the international race to find the underlying biological causes for autism spectrum disorder (ASD), a lifelong condition estimated to affect 45,000 New Zealanders.

Part of their work will be seeking DNA from Kiwis affected by the disorder in an effort to uncover the keys to autism.

With some world-renowned geneticists at the helm of the "Minds for Minds" campaign, the team believe they have as good a chance of making a breakthrough as their international counterparts.

Auckland University's Centre for Brain Research hosted the launch last night, which called for New Zealanders on the spectrum to register on their database.

Some will then be contacted to have their human genome sequenced.

At between $1000 and $3000 per person, an initial cost of $1 million has been set for the research, which will be publicly funded.

Renowned geneticist Professor Russell Snell, who was part of the team successful in isolating the gene for Huntington's disease, said it was not about finding a cure for autism.

"This is not pure research or just for geeks; I see this work very much as a way of practically making life easier for families or individuals dealing with autism. In our best dreams, patterns may be seen and people will be better disposed to learn what is ahead for them. It doesn't have to end up with a drug. There are other levels of outcome," he said.

Far from the Hollywood image of autistic people having genius talents as depicted in Rainman, most diagnosed with ASD had intellectual impairment, may not be able to speak and many would not be able to live independent lives, he said.

Also on the team is neurologist Rosamund Hill, who has a 10-year-old profoundly autistic son.

She said parents of children with the disorder were often in the dark about what was ahead for their children.

"It would be great if we could say these genetic changes in your child mean this is likely to be the course of their condition as opposed to they have autism but we have no idea what that will mean in the long term," Dr Hill said.

The prevalence of autism is increasing.

In the past two decades, the number of those affected has risen by more than 600 per cent and it is not understood why.

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Fairfax Media