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Autism Speaks Awards Nearly $2.9 Million to Fund Autism Research

New York, N.Y. (June 21, 2012) – Autism Speaks, the world’s leading autism science and advocacy organization, today announced the award of new research grants totaling nearly $2.9 million in funding to support autism research. “Suzanne and I are extraordinarily proud of Autism Speaks, not only for funding research projects which have tremendous potential to open new avenues to understanding autism,” said Autism Speaks Co-founder Bob Wright, “but in supporting predoctoral and postdoctoral fellows who are the next generation of leaders in autism research.”

The projects approved include a Suzanne and Bob Wright Trailblazer Award, ten Weatherstone Predoctoral Fellowships and nine Postdoctoral Fellowships in Translational Research. In addition, five targeted research studies which support research across a range of high-priority areas were funded. These include environmental risk factors, understanding the impact of DSM-5 on autism diagnosis, the development of medicines, new behavioral treatments across the lifespan, improved access to early intervention in minority communities and a deeper understanding of autism biology.

“We are extremely gratified by the high quality of these research projects. These projects focus on issues that directly affect the lives of individuals with autism, such as the development of new treatments, the impact of the new diagnostic criteria for autism, and understanding the causes of autism,” says Autism Speaks Chief Science Officer Geri Dawson, Ph.D. “and the fellowships are so important for bringing new talent into the field.”

The new Trailblazer project was awarded to Raymond Palmer, Ph.D., an expert in preventive medicine and epidemiology at the University of Texas Health Sciences Center to investigate the use of baby teeth to track exposure to chemicals during the prenatal and postnatal period that may affect autism risk. “The lack of methods to determine environmental exposures during critical periods of early development has long challenged research into environmental risk factors for autism,” Dr. Dawson says of the study’s importance. Dr. Palmer pioneered the use of lost baby teeth to detect prenatal and early childhood exposure pesticides, drugs and other environmental chemicals in typically developing children. After further validating the method, the goal will be to compare baby teeth from children with autism to those from a control group unaffected by the disorder.

Targeted research projects, reviewed by outside experts and the Autism Speaks Scientific Review Panel  address timely autism research studies.

David Mandell, Ph.D., of the University of Pennsylvania, will develop and evaluate the effects of a population-based program to improve early diagnosis and referral for autism services in an underserved minority community.

Two projects will use animal models that promise to advance the development of autism medicines. Joseph Buxbaum, Ph.D., of Mount Sinai School of Medicine, will use rat models to identify brain pathways common to several forms of autism. Richard Paylor, Ph.D., of Baylor College of Medicine, will complete his classification of autism-like behaviors in genetically engineered rat models of autism.

At Medical University of South Carolina, Laura Carpenter, Ph.D. will conduct a study that promises to provide clearer information on the effect of proposed changes to the definition of ASD in the next edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual for Mental Disorders (DSM-5). She will also assess how these changes will affect the estimated prevalence of autism using two different population-screening methods.

Autism Speaks Weatherstone Predoctoral Fellowships launch promising young scientists into careers in autism by supporting cutting-edge research under the mentorship of leading researchers. This year’s awards include Tychele Turner at Johns Hopkins University who will use a molecular approach to explore the possible role of the X chromosome in reducing autism risk in girls and women. Christopher Muller from Vanderbilt University will study elevated serotonin levels and their relationship to sensory problems in autism.

At the University of California, Davis, Myka Estes will study how immune system abnormalities may affect early brain development in children with autism. Laura Edwards (Harvard University) will use a novel, non-invasive brain imaging technique to study the brain systems associated with impaired social behavior in children with autism and their unaffected siblings, and Katherine Stavropoulos at the University of California, San Diego will study neural responses to social signals. Michael Grubb (New York University) and Aarti Nair (University of California, San Diego) will use functional MRI to better understand brain dysfunction in individuals with autism, respectively focusing on impairments in visual attention and brain connectivity.

Autism Speaks Postdoctoral Fellowships in Translational Research help turn scientific discoveries into treatments that improve lives. New 2012 fellowships include Soumya Pati at Baylor College of Medicine who will use advanced testing techniques to identify subgroups of individuals who may respond to specific medical treatments. The techniques include RNA sequencing of blood and analysis of nerve cells grown from skin stem cells. These will be compared to information from brain scans. At the University of North Carolina, Brian Teng will study the effects of oxytocin receptor agonist drugs in mouse models of ASD. Dean Carson (Stanford University) will conduct a randomized controlled trial of oxytocin treatment for social deficits in children. This study will also assess a biomarker that may help identify children who will benefit from this treatment.

Adam Eggebrecht at Washington University will use another novel brain imaging method to map brain networks associated with autism. Oana Tudusciuc  from the California Institute of Technology will study epilepsy patients, with or without autism, who have implanted electrodes that track seizures. This research promises to reveal how individual brain cells function differently in persons with autism.
At Stanford University, Garrett Anderson will study the role of the CNTNAP2 gene in brain cell development and transmission.

Ryan Yuen (Hospital for Sick Children, Toronto) will study the role of the Y chromosome in autism as part of Dr. Scherer’s research project. Mary Beth Nebel at Kennedy Krieger Institute will use new robotic techniques to help children with autism learn to imitate. This study also promises to advance understanding of brain differences associated with impaired imitation in autism. Elena Tenenbaum (Women and Infants Hospital and Brown University) will explore whether certain attention-directing techniques can enhance language learning in children with autism. 

All research funded is made possible by the generosity and passion of Autism Speaks’ community of families, donors and volunteers.

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 1 in 88 children in the U.S. is on the autism spectrum – a 1,000 percent increase in the past 40 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.