NAAR funding for pilot studies at the Child Study Center at Yale University School of Medicine played a key role in the recent award of a five year, multi-million dollar grant from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to the center as part of the STAART (Studies to Advance Autism Research and Treatment) program to establish Centers of Excellence in autism research throughout the country.
The NIH has recently announced grants totaling $19 million to support the first two research centers of a major network of facilities to focus on the biomedical and behavioral aspects of autism. The first centers will be located at Yale University and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
Yale researcher Ami Klin, Ph.D., said that NAAR was very important to Yale's ability to attract this highly competitive NIH award for several reasons.
"We started the toddler program at the Yale Child Study Center thanks to a grant from NAAR that funded our initial eye-tracking studies with this group of children. As we believe that our best research hypotheses come from our clinical work, and because we also believe in establishing a long-term clinical commitment to any new area of systematic study, the NAAR award provided us with the impetus to establish a "toddler clinic" and to attract extremely promising clinical scientists who would join us in this effort (such as Dr. Kasia Chawarska). Thanks to that first grant from NAAR, we completed our preliminary work, which included not just preliminary data, but also refinement of our methods and systems," said Dr. Klin.
Additionally, NAAR provided initial funding for Yale's study of precursors of joint attention in young children with autism, led by Dr. Kasia Chawarska and Dr. Fred Volkmar, as well as the work of Dr. Rhea Paul, which focused on prosody research in children with autism.
"Of the five Yale projects included in the STAART grant, three are focused on toddlers and ALL THREE of those grants were initially funded by NAAR," said Dr. Klin.
But this is not the end of the story, he said.
A fourth project of the five is a treatment protocol that has a strong eye-tracking component serving as an innovative outcome measure, and this too was strengthened by the preliminary work and refinement of methods funded by NAAR's initial eye-tracking award.
"NAAR has also expanded the reach of these new methods by funding a fellowship focused on an animal model of social disability using eye-tracking technology as an evaluative tool," said Dr. Klin. "On this grant, Yale is collaborating with Dr. Jocelyne Bachevalier from the University of Houston, who has what is probably the most successful animal model of social disability to date."
Additionally, NAAR's commitment to funding mentoring fellowships for autism researchers provides a nice fit to the STAART program, which also emphasizes the training of new researchers.
"What is really nice is that the STAART grant goes with a very strong assessment core, which creates the opportunity to train a lot of people in our fields of research," said Dr. Klin. "This is why Yale is so excited about NAAR's commitment and dedication to funding mentoring fellowships."
This year, NAAR invested a record $1 million in mentoring fellowships for pre- and post-doctoral candidates. The fellowships are designed to attract the best and brightest young investigators to the field of autism research. NAAR's fellowships provide the necessary resources to support and encourage young scientists who benefit from the mentorship of prominent autism researchers, like those at Yale.
In April, NAAR awarded a total of four pre-and post-doctoral mentoring fellowships to autism researchers at Yale University School of Medicine, whose mentors are: Dr. Klin, Dr. Volkmar, Dr. Pasko Rakic and Dr. Robert Schultz.
Dr. Volkmar and Dr. Klin are the principal investigators for the STAART grant at Yale University (with a site at Oberlin College, Ohio) for "The Social Neuroscience of Autism and Related Disorders."
Yale's STAART research will include:
- Eye Tracking Studies of Social Engagement
- Gaze Processing in Young Children with Autism
- Roots of Social Communication: Auditory Preferences
- Behavioral and Neural Plasticity in Face Recognition
- Fluvoxamine in Children and Adolescents with Anxiety Disorders
Funding grants for new, innovative pilot studies that allow researchers the opportunity to leverage their initial research into larger, multi-year grants from the NIH and other sources is at the core of NAAR's mission. Since 1997, several autism researchers have leveraged their NAAR grants to attract larger awards from the NIH, which has resulted in significantly increased investments in autism research.
The STAART Centers Program was established in response to the Children's Health Act of 2000, which calls for five new autism research centers by the end of FY 2003. NAAR played a leading role in developing the Children's Health Act of 2000 and ensuring that it had a strong focus on autism research.
The STAART program will expand NIH's commitment to autism research, which last year totaled $56 million. The NIH Autism Coordinating Committee (NIH/ACC) coordinates autism research conducted by its five member Institutes: The National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD), the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS), the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders (NIDCD), and the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS). All will contribute funds to the STAART program.
Other funding for the STAART Centers program includes one-year developmental grants, which were already funded at six universities and research institutes to help research teams prepare applications for future centers.
The competition for the additional STAART Center sites is underway. The Children's Health Act calls for a total of at least five centers, so at least three more will be selected in FY 2003. The research centers, along with a data coordination center and collaborative projects among the centers, will constitute the STAART program. Each center will contribute to the autism research base in the areas of causes, diagnosis, early detection, prevention, control, and treatment. Plans also include interaction with the Collaborative Programs of Excellence in Autism (CPEA), eight funded projects sponsored by the NICHD/NIDCD Network on the Neurobiology and Genetics of Autism.
"NAAR extends our congratulations to Drs. Klin, Volkmar and their colleagues at Yale Child Study Center and to Drs. Joseph Piven and James Bodfish at the University of North Carolina, University of Iowa, and Duke University and hopes that their collective research provides new insights, treatments and answers for children and adults with autism spectrum disorders," said Karen London, NAAR's Co-founder. "Our gratitude goes out to all of our donors and volunteers without whom the funding of these NAAR Research Awards would not have been possible."