CAN: Grants on Environmental Factors (2000-2005)

Total Funding Commitment: $828,041


Sydney Finegold, M.D., University of California, Los Angeles (Bridge Grant, 2000)

Studies of the Relationship Between Autism and Colonization of the Intestinal Tract by Neurotoxigenic Clostridial Species ($20,000)

This group investigates the possibility that neurotoxin-producing bacteria could cause or significantly contribute to autistic symptoms in a subset of children with autism. They examine the Clostridium species isolated from the stools of children with autism.

Deborah Keil, Ph.D., Medical University of South Carolina (Environmental Sciences Award, 2002)

A Comparative Study Evaluating the Dose-Responsiveness Effects of Methylmercury and Thimerosal on Select Nervous, Immune and Enzyme Parameters ($180,504)

The purpose of this study is to identify alterations in a variety of immunological, developmental, and learning parameters after postnatal exposure to thimerosal or methylmercury. Dose-response data is determined for thimerosal in a variety of endpoints that have not been previously reported, focusing especially on immunotoxicity, and establishes that methylmercury does not always have similar effects.

Tal Kenet, Ph.D., University of California, San Francisco (Young Investigator Award, 2003)

Auditory and Visual Processing Deficits in Autism ($79,300)

Environmental exposures of various forms may influence brain development. Specifically, this project looks in detail at how exposure to toxins such as PCPs changes the pattern of neuronal connectivity in the brain, establishes the proof-of-principle that toxins can impact early brain patterning, and suggests that methods to assist brain re-wiring may help re-organize the brain.

Dennis Kinney, Ph.D., Harvard Medical School (CAN Pilot Project Award, 2005)

Do Environmental Factors Play a Role in Autism? A Test Using Natural Experiments ($80,000)

Whether environmental factors play an important role in causing autism is a crucial - and hotly debated - question. Many studies report unusually high rates of medical problems during the gestations and births of persons who later developed autism, suggesting that environmental factors occurring before or around the time of birth may contribute to the development of the disorder. Skeptics, however, argue that the same genes that cause autism also cause these high rates of pregnancy and birth complications. The most powerful scientific approach to deciding this issue -- an experiment in which pregnant women were randomly assigned to low vs. high stress conditions - would clearly be unethical. We use an alternative strategy that uses natural disasters as "experiments of nature" to test the hypothesis that exposure to stressful events during vulnerable weeks of gestation significantly increases risk of developing autism. Anonymous data on more than 4,000 persons with autism from three different states, as well as on 2 million general population births in these same states, will be studied to investigate whether autism rates are significantly increased among individuals who were in certain weeks of gestation at the time their mothers were exposed to natural disasters such as extremely destructive earthquakes, hurricanes, and severe blizzards. Confirmation that pre- and perinatal environmental stressors play a significant role in causing autism would have important implications for the treatment and prevention of autism.

Xue Ming, M.D., Ph.D., UMDNJ-New Jersey Medical School (Pilot Grant, 2004)

Oxidative Stress in Autism ($81,202)

Exposure to environmental factors both pre- and peri-natally can lead to oxidative stress. This project examines whether there is evidence of oxidative stress in individuals with autism, a finding which could lead to new approaches for treating the disorder.

Craig Newschaffer, Ph.D., Johns Hopkins School of Public Health (Bridge Grant, 2000)

A Review Paper on Secular Trends in the Occurrence of Autism ($8,554)

This contracted project was commissioned to prepare and publish a review on the epidemiology of autism. The goal is to critically explore trends in autism incidence and to use this data to explore current theories of autism causality.

Carlos Pardo-Villamizar, M.D., Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine (Pilot Grant, 2003)

Neuroimmune Reactions in the Pathogenesis of Autism ($120,000)

This study hypothesizes that the neurobiological abnormalities in autism are, in part, immune mediated. The research involves examination of tissues for evidence of an inflammatory response within the brain, and documents for the first time the presence of cellular and humoral immunopathological reactions in patients with autism.

Antonio Persico, M.D., University Campus Bio-Medico, Roma (Pilot Grant, 2003)

Genotypic and Phenotypic Characterization of Paraoxonase Enzymatic Activity in Autistic Patients and First-degree Relatives ($120,000)

This project investigates whether individuals with autism may be especially susceptible to exposure to toxins during critical periods of neurodevelopment. Specifically they examine the serum activity of the enzyme paraoxonase-1, responsible for de-toxifying organophosphates found in common pesticides and other chemicals, along with genetic diversity of the PON-1 gene.

Ellen Silbergeld, Ph.D., University of Maryland School of Medicine (Environmental Sciences Award, 2001)

Role of Cytokines in Developmental Neurotoxicity ($79,472)

This project tests the hypothesis that a major toxic effect of methylmercury exposure is damage to the developing nervous system by inhibiting cell migration. The experiments establish that mercury compounds may do so by interfering with cell-cell communication and gain information on the specific signaling pathways that are affected.

Sarah Soden, M.D., and Jennifer Lowry, M.D., Children's Mercy Hospitals and Clinics (Environmental Sciences Award, 2002)

Provocative Urine Excretion of Heavy Metals using Meso-2,3-Dimercaptosuccinic acid (DMSA) in Children with Autism ($9,091)

This study seeks to investigate the role heavy metals may play in the etiology of autism by developing a diagnostic test to establish heavy metal toxicity in children with autism. The investigation measures urinary mercury, lead, cadmium, arsenic and aluminum prior to and during a 24 hour provocative urine excretion study using the heavy metal chelator DMSA.

Leman Yel, M.D., University of California, Irvine (Environmental Sciences Award, 2001)

Effect of Mercury on Apoptosis on Neuronal Cells ($49,918)

This study examines whether thimerosal causes the death of nerve cells. Specifically, the investigators determined that thimerosal exposure negatively impacts the functioning of the mitochondria within the cells.


In addition to its normal grant calls, through a specific call for proposals, Cure Autism Now's Environmental Factors in Autism Initiative awarded four of the above grants for studies focusing on mercury. Until recently the chemical thimerosal, a mercury derivative, was a commonly used preservative in childhood vaccines and other medical and health products.