Welsh scientists are to probe why children with learning disabilities often end up with behavioural problems and troubled mental health in adolescence and adulthood.
Experts from Cardiff University will look at faulty genes underpinning the learning disabilities that can go hand in hand with challenging behaviours and adult mental health problems.
Professor Jeremy Hall, from Cardiff University’s MRC Centre for Neuropsychiatric Genetics and Genomics, and scientists from Cambridge University and the University College London, hope to recruit 10,000 people to the study.
Professor Hall said understanding the link to faulty genes would see parents given more information and better prepare them for the future challenges they face.
The research also offers hope more effective treatments will be developed. Experiments on mice with Rett syndrome – a developmental disorder that almost always affects girls – have reversed the condition after treatment on the problem gene.
Professor Hall said: “There are an estimated 1.5 million people with intellectual disabilities in the UK and a significant number of them are children under 18 years of age.
“Whilst we know intellectual disability can be caused by events such as extreme premature birth, birth injury or brain infections, research has found that minor chromosomal anomalies – known as copy number variations (CNV) – are strongly associated with children with an intellectual disability.”
Learning disabilities usually appear in childhood, with the signs and symptoms mainly behavioural as children experience difficulties learning to talk and with memory and key social skills.
NHS Regional Genetics Centres hold vital information on the genes linked to learning disabilities and the scientists are to be given unprecedented access to it.
Another of the Cardiff-based academics involved Dr Marianne van den Bree, of the university’s Institute of Psychological Medicine and Clinical Neurosciences, said: “This vital information is picked up by the NHS by a simple genetic test however, until now, has been an untapped source of information.
“Using the genetic information, the team will recruit some 10,000 families. Focusing on behavioural adjustments in early to middle childhood, they will examine and report behaviour and ability using social circumstances and medical history.”
Dr Lucy Raymond, reader in neurogenetics from the Cambridge Institute for Medical Research, who will lead the investigations, says when a CNV is found in a child families deserve to be told what the future holds.
The study, titled Imagine, is supported by charities that help families of children with learning disabilities.