Oxford-based research into autism has hit a major breakthrough, equivalent to one which revoluntionised the understanding of cancer 30 years ago.

Scientists at Oxford University were one of three major studies to have identified the genetic mechanisms underlying autistic disorders.

Thousands of volunteers had their DNA screened and the scientists believe it has lifted the lid on the causes of autism.

They believe proteins called cell adhesion molecules, which play a vital role in shaping brain “wiring”, and the way nerve cells communicate, play a key role in autism disorders.

Study leader, Prof Tony Monaco, from the Wellcome Trust for Human Genetics at Oxford, said: “Most of the genes that have been identified in these studies are involved in the connections between neurons called synapses.

“This does seem to fit with what we know from brain scans — that people with autism may show different or reduced connectivity between different parts of the brain.

“This new knowledge allows us to focus our studies on developing new treatments and intervention therapies for the future.”

Autism covers a group of conditions known as autism spectrum disorders and affects about one in 150 children, most of whom are male.

They find it harder to communicate, have repetitive and narrowly focused behaviour.