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In search of biomarkers for autism: scientific, social and ethical challenges

Nature Reviews Neuroscience volume 12, pages 603612 (2011) | Download Citation


There is widespread hope that the discovery of valid biomarkers for autism will both reveal the causes of autism and enable earlier and more targeted methods for diagnosis and intervention. However, growing enthusiasm about recent advances in this area of autism research needs to be tempered by an awareness of the major scientific challenges and the important social and ethical concerns arising from the development of biomarkers and their clinical application. Collaborative approaches involving scientists and other stakeholders must combine the search for valid, clinically useful autism biomarkers with efforts to ensure that individuals with autism and their families are treated with respect and understanding.

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During the writing of this article, M.E. was supported by the Leverhulme Trust, the UK Medical Research Council (G0701484), the British Autism Study of Infant Siblings (BASIS) funding consortium led by Autistica ( and the COST Action BM1004. Although the views expressed in this paper are her own, M.E. is grateful to colleagues from BASIS for helpful discussions and to BASIS families for inspiring and guiding her thinking about autism. P.B. is a senior investigator in the UK National Institute of Health Research (NIHR). He is supported by the NIHR Biomedical Research Centre in Mental Health at the South London and Maudsley Foundation Trust and the Institute of Psychiatry, King's College London.

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Author notes

    • Mayada Elsabbagh

    Mayada Elsabbagh was previously at the Centre for Brain and Cognitive Development, School of Psychology, Birkbeck College, University of London, London WC1E 7HX, UK. Present address: Department of Psychiatry, McGill University, 1033 Pine Av. West, Montreal, Quebec H3A 1A1, Canada.

    • Pat Walsh
    •  & Mayada Elsabbagh

    P.W. and M.E. contributed equally to this work.


  1. Pat Walsh is at the Centre of Medical Law and Ethics, School of Law, King's College, London WC2R 2LS, UK.

    • Pat Walsh
  2. Patrick Bolton is at the Institute of Psychiatry, King's College London, De Crespigny Park, London SE5 8AF, UK.

    • Patrick Bolton
  3. Ilina Singh is at the BIOS Centre, London School of Economics and Political Science, London WC2A 2AE, UK.

    • Ilina Singh


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Competing interests

The authors declare no competing financial interests.

Corresponding authors

Correspondence to Pat Walsh or Mayada Elsabbagh.

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