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Autism Speaks Funds Nearly $700,000 for High Priority Research

Ground-breaking projects include a targeted grant on dementia and autism as well as six career-launching postdoctoral fellowships

New York, N.Y. (June 26, 2013) – Autism Speaks, the world’s leading autism science and advocacy organization, today announced awards totaling $685,968 funding new research in areas of high priority that will advance understanding and treatment of autism spectrum disorders (ASD). The new funding includes six translational postdoctoral fellowships and a study on dementia in older persons with autism. To date, Autism Speaks has committed nearly $199 million for research projects that advance understanding of the causes, prevention treatment and cure of ASD.   

While there has been unprecedented progress in the field of autism research, there is still much to understand about ASD. The rising prevalence, from the CDC prevalence estimate of one in 88 children to the most recent survey finding that one in 50 school-age children are diagnosed with ASD clearly establishes the urgency for progress in understanding the causes and finding effective therapies and treatments and underlies the need for research. Through research from the field’s brightest postdoctoral scientists as part of the translational postdoctoral fellowship program, Autism Speaks seeks to accelerate the pace at which basic scientific discoveries are translated into novel and effective ways of diagnosing, preventing and treating autism by supporting multidisciplinary training.

“Autism is a growing public health crisis, and the prevalence numbers underscore the need for a powerful and appropriate national strategy on autism,” says Autism Speaks President Liz Feld. “Through the generosity of our families, volunteers, donors and partners, Autism Speaks continues to play a pivotal role in catalyzing innovation and funding groundbreaking research that has the potential to transform lives.”

Translational Postdoctoral Fellowships

Autism Speaks postdoctoral fellowships support promising scientists pursuing training in ASD translational research, putting science into action. Successful applicants have projects that bridge laboratory research to real-life applications which have the potential to directly benefit individuals and families. Each project’s training plan includes mentoring by leading autism experts in basic and clinical research. Based on a review of 47 prospective projects, six postdoctoral fellowships were selected. Funding is focused on brain studies, including assessment of brain proteins, mouse models, brain cell models, examination of neurons which may be found to disrupt brain function in autism, and monitoring brain responses using a variety of techniques during therapeutic sessions to assess the efficacy of treatments and to measure responses to social cues.

Gena Glickman, Ph.D., of University of California San Diego, will characterize light exposure and sleep-wake patterns in 5- to 10-year-olds with autism. She will test the idea that sleep disturbances are early biomarkers for ASD. This could advance early diagnosis and therapy for at-risk infants.

Ning Liu, Ph.D., of Stanford University, will use functional near infrared spectroscopy (fNIRS) to enable clinicians to monitor brain activation responses in individuals with autism during therapy sessions. This will provide feedback for both therapists and the individuals receiving therapy. This project promises to advance the use of fNIRS to assess and enhance treatment.

Emily Neuhaus, Ph.D., of Seattle Children’s Hospital, will use electroencephalography (EEG) and event-related potential (ERP) methods to explore links between autism social impairment and the brain’s response to rewarding information (positive feedback).

Rachel Reith, Ph.D., of the National Institute of Mental Health, will use a mouse model of tuberous sclerosis complex to examine how rapamycin alters brain-protein production. The long-term goal is to develop medicines for tuberous sclerosis and autism.

Jason Stein, Ph.D., of the University of California, Los Angeles, will create autism brain cell models based on specific autism risk genes. This will provide vital information for future screening of potential medicines and other autism research.

Paige Weinger, Ph.D., at Mount Sinai’s Icahn School of Medicine, will use brain responses to visual cues to explore hypersensitivities and hyposensitivities in children with autism. She will identify brain activity patterns in severely affected children, unaffected siblings and children from families unaffected by autism. The aim is to develop rapid and reliable biomarkers that advance understanding and identification of difficulties in sensory processing.

Targeted Research Award

Autism Speaks is also supporting a follow-up study on dementia in older adults with autism. Marsha Mailick, Ph.D., of the University of Wisconsin Waisman Center will determine whether persons with autism have increased risk for dementia in later life. She will also develop a dementia screening tool specific for adults with ASD. This expands on Dr. Mailick’s current Autism Speaks-funded study examining quality of life in middle-aged adults with autism. Both projects involve one of the largest groups of adult study participants with autism.

“These awards fund cutting-edge projects that will provide critical information and tools for the development of more effective treatments and improving quality of life for people with autism spectrum disorder,” said Autism Speaks Chief Science Officer Robert Ring, Ph.D., “Our postdoctoral fellowship awards will ensure that new talent is being recruited into the field and that they’ll have the resources to establish what we hope will be lifelong careers in autism research.”

Research and services funded by Autism Speaks can be searched via the Autism Speaks Grant Search (http://www.autismspeaks.org/about-us/grant-search).

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 communication difficulties, social and behavioral challenges, as well as repetitive behaviors. An estimated one 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 nearly $199 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. On the global front, Autism Speaks has established partnerships and related activities in more than 40 countries on 5 continents to foster international research, services and awareness. To learn more about Autism Speaks, please visit www.AutismSpeaks.org.