Autism Speaks Awards Nearly $5 Million to Fund Research on Autism Spectrum Disorders

Grants include a Suzanne and Bob Wright Trailblazer Award to study the multi-generation effects of medications taken during pregnancy

New York, N.Y. (September 27, 2012) – Autism Speaks, the world’s leading autism science and advocacy organization, today announced the awarding of new research grants totaling nearly $5 million. “Autism Speaks is committed to continuing our research which has tremendous potential to increase our understanding of autism and addressing the needs of individuals with autism,” said Autism Speaks Co-founder Bob Wright, “and we are grateful to the donors who make this research possible.”

This round of grants includes studies of pre‐and post‐natal environmental risk factors and their interaction with autism risk genes; prenatal supplements for reducing autism risk;  a web-based autism screening tool; new approaches for teaching language to nonverbal children with autism; an intervention to expand food choices in adolescents with autism who are picky eaters; a community‐based parent‐training program to promote social communication; acamprosate, an experimental medication for relieving social disabilities; identification of biomarkers that can predict response to autism medications; a large-scale evaluation of autism prevalence and risk factors in South Asia; and new interventions for enhancing social interaction, language and motor development.

“With each round of research grants we’re seeing tremendous advances in science’s ability to deliver treatments and services that transform lives,” says Autism Speaks Chief Science Officer Geraldine Dawson, Ph.D. “We are lucky and thankful to partner with expert and passionate scientists in this work.”

The newest Suzanne and Bob Wright Trailblazer Award was granted to Erick Mortensen, Ph.D., (Institute of Preventive Medicine at Frederiksberg Hospital, Denmark) to track the effects of pregnancy medications across generations, in children and grandchildren. Mortensen will use Denmark’s national health database to identify women who took medications during pregnancy between 1969 and 1971. He will track developmental outcomes across two generations. “Studies of grandchildren are important because we now know that medications and other exposures can produce epigenetic changes that can be passed down through generations,” Dr. Dawson explains. Epigenetic changes alter gene activity without changing the genetic code. The study will advance understanding of how environmental influences during pregnancy affect autism risk. Autism Speaks launched its Suzanne and Bob Wright Trailblazer Awards to support highly novel “out of the box” autism-relevant research.

This round of funding includes both two-year pilot grants to support preliminary research, often by scientists new to autism research, and three-year, full treatment grants to fund large-scale projects that build on preliminary findings as well as targeted research grants.

A full treatment grant was awarded to Craig Erickson, M.D. (Cincinnati Children's Hospital Medical Center), who will test the effectiveness of the medicine acamprosate for treating ASD social impairment. The clinical trial will enroll 36 participants ages 5 to 17. Researchers will also examine biomarkers to better identify those likely to respond to treatment.

The second full treatment grant awarded to Aubyn Stahmer, Ph.D. (Rady Children’s Hospital, San Diego) to evaluate the effectiveness of a program focused on broad community-based dissemination of a parent-led intervention program. The “Teaching Social” curriculum helps families use daily-life techniques that improve social communication.

Pilot treatment grants were awarded to researchers to study the biology of autism, dietary, social behavior, and language interventions, including several technology applications.

Using brain imaging (magnetic resonance spectroscopy), Grainne McAlonan, Ph.D. at Kings College (London) will evaluate imbalances in GABA and glutamate. Previous research suggests that an imbalance in these brain chemicals may partly explain abnormal autism brain function. The project seeks to identify targets for medications that can relieve autism’s core symptoms.

Emily Kuschner, Ph.D. at The Children's Hospital of Philadelphia will develop and evaluate a program to expand the diets of adolescents with autism who are extremely picky eaters.

Anjana Bhat, Ph.D. (University of Connecticut) will evaluate a musical intervention for improving motor, social, and communication skills in children affected by autism with intellectual disability. Musical interventions have become popular in recent years and this study responds to the need to determine the effectiveness of such programs. 

At Boston University, Sudha Arunachalam, Ph.D. will evaluate a low-cost computer tool for teaching word meanings to nonverbal children with ASD. And at Portland State University, Amy Donaldson, Ph.D. will examine a new social communication intervention that combines video modeling with sibling participation. Lastly, Simon Dymond, Ph.D. (Swansea University, Wales), will test a portable communication device designed to simplify and promote communication skills in nonverbal children with ASD.

Three Targeted Research Awards include one of the first studies to estimate autism prevalence in South Asia. Parul Christian, Ph.D. (Johns Hopkins University) will screen children in 600 villages in Bangladesh for ASD and will also study how vitamin supplementation during pregnancy and infancy affects autism risk. The study promises to shed light on how nutritional deficits may contribute to ASD. 

Diana Robins, Ph.D. (Georgia State University) will evaluate the accuracy of a web-based version of the M-CHAT autism screen for toddlers and Gregory Young, Ph.D. (University of California, Davis) received continued funding to expand Autism Speaks Baby Siblings Research Consortium (BSRC) database. The BSRC promotes collaboration in infant sibling research. It has already provided vital support for six research studies.

About Autism
Autism is a general term used to describe a group of complex developmental brain disorders – autism spectrum disorders – caused by a combination of genes and environmental influences. These disorders are characterized, in varying degrees, by social and behavioral challenges, as well as repetitive behaviors. An estimated 1 in 88 children in the U.S. is on the autism spectrum – a 78 percent increase in six years that is only partly explained by improved diagnosis.

About Autism Speaks
Autism Speaks is the world’s leading autism science and advocacy organization. It is dedicated to funding research into the causes, prevention, treatments and a cure for autism; increasing awareness of autism spectrum disorders; and advocating for the needs of individuals with autism and their families. Autism Speaks was founded in February 2005 by Suzanne and Bob Wright, the grandparents of a child with autism. Mr. Wright is the former vice chairman of General Electric and chief executive officer of NBC and NBC Universal. Since its inception, Autism Speaks has committed over $180 million to research and developing innovative resources for families. Each year Walk Now for Autism Speaks events are held in more than 95 cities across North America. To learn more about Autism Speaks, please visit www.autismspeaks.org.