Researchers hope that finding will make genetic testing a standard part of treating a child with the condition.

Cerebral palsy, a disorder that can affect movement, muscle tone and posture, is the most common motor disability in childhood and affects around 2 out of every 100,000 births. It has long been thought that the condition was caused by external factors such as infection and birth asphyxia, which can affect the development of the foetal brain, and as a result genetic testing is not routinely offered to affected children.

However, researchers from The Hospital for Sick Children (SickKids) and the Research Institute of the McGill University Health Centre (RI-MUHC) in Canada have identified a series of genes that appear to be associated with cerebral palsy. Dr. Maryam Oskoui, peadiatric neurologist at the Montreal Children’s Hospital who authored the study, discovered that around 10% of the 115 children in their study had structural differences in those genes. These ‘copy number variations’ (CNVs) typically occur in only 1% of the general population.

The involvement of several different genes could explain why cerebral palsy affects children in a diverse range of ways, much in the same manner as autism. “Interestingly, the frequency of de novo, or new, CNVs identified in these patients with cerebral palsy is even more significant than some of the major CNV autism research from the last 10 years,” said Dr. Stephen Scherer director of The Centre for Applied Genomics at SickKids. “We’ve opened many doors for new research into cerebral palsy.”

Dr Oskoui adds that the study does not show how these genetic factors interplay with the established risk factors. “Two newborns exposed to the same environmental stressors will often have very different outcomes,” she explains. “Our research suggests that our genes impart resilience, or conversely a susceptibility to injury.”