Will all babies get tested for autism in the womb?

British researchers have identified up to 300 genes that cause autism, and they hope to have mapped all the genes responsible for the condition within two years. And they believe that eventually, all newborn children could be tested for autism.

A group of Oxford researchers, writing in the journal Nature, say that they've identified several new genes that could help create a predisposition for autism, and they hope to identify all of the genes involved in the condition within the next two years. The newly identified genes relate to things like connections between brain cells, and signaling between brain cells. This makes autism seem more like a genetic condition — and it seems much less likely that vaccinating your children causes them to become autistic.

Talking to the BBC, the researchers hold out the promise that eventually their research could lead to more drug therapies for autism, but that's probably a long way off. More immediately, though, their findings are giving us more insight into the origins of this condition, which may spring from the interaction of these genes with the child's environment.

And Oxford professor Tony Monaco seems confident that we could have a genetic test for susceptibility to autism pretty soon. He tells the BBC:

The idea is to track these genes in their families and see if we can offer genetic counselling and what information we can offer the patient. If we can show the efficacy of that in the clinical care of the patients then we can push for it into genetic testing in the NHS. We'd hope that within two years we'd come up with clinical practice guidelines. So families can expect that we might be able to offer in the very near future some further DNA analysis of all patients.

Monaco seems to be referring to testing newborns for a susceptibility to autism before they actually develop the condition, which could allow for more counseling and possibly some early treatments. But his remarks also raise the specter that parents could get tested before conceiving, to see if their genes might lead to a child with a tendency to autism. Or we could start routinely testing embryos for autism in the womb. Could autism be the new frontier of genetic discrimination? [Nature via BBC]