The cause of autism has baffled researchers since 1943, when the late American psychiatrist Leo Kanner first described the disorder in 11 children. Once thought to be a result of poor upbringing or a psychological disorder, autism has come to be understood as a biologically based disruption in mental functioning that makes it difficult for those with the disease to process information about the world around them. Recent studies have focused on identifying brain abnormalities and the genetic defects that may trigger autism. A five-year, $27 million National Institutes of Health project will help fill in the wide gaps in understanding of autism.

"At this time, there is no reliable biological marker [for autism]," says Marie Bristol, head of the autism program at the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development. Finding a marker is just one goal of NIH's International Network on Biology and Brain Development in Autism....

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