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Autism Speaks Funds New Research

September 28, 2012

Autism Speaks is pleased to announce nearly $5 million in funding for new research on autism spectrum disorders (ASD). The grants include a Suzanne and Bob Wright Trailblazer Award to study the multi-generation effects of medications taken during pregnancy. Other research projects include:

  • 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
  • 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 Geri Dawson, Ph.D. “We extend our deep thanks to the donors and volunteers who make this possible and the passionate scientists who are our partners in this work.”

Suzanne and Bob Wright Trailblazer Award
The newest Trailblazer project will track the effects of pregnancy medications across generations. Erick Mortensen, Ph.D., 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 - children and grandchildren. “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. (More about epigenetics here.) The study will advance understanding of how environmental influences during pregnancy affect autism risk.

Treatment Grants
Autism Speaks funds both pilot and full treatment grants. Two-year pilot grants support preliminary research, often by scientists new to autism research. Three-year, full treatment grants fund large-scale projects that build on preliminary findings.

Full treatment grants

  • Craig Erickson, M.D. (Cincinnati Children's Hospital Medical Center), 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.
  • Aubyn Stahmer, Ph.D. (Rady Children’s Hospital, San Diego), will 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

  • Grainne McAlonan, Ph.D. (Kings College, London), will evaluate imbalances in two brain chemicals – GABA and glutamate, using brain imaging (magnetic resonance spectroscopy). Previous research suggests that an imbalance in glutamate and GABA 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. (Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia), will develop and evaluate a program to expand the diets of extremely picky eaters with autism. The study will enroll adolescents in a new group program.
  • 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. This study will address the need for testing the effectiveness of such programs. In recent years, they have become popular despite limited evidence of benefit. 
  • Sudha Arunachalam, Ph.D. (Boston University), will evaluate a low-cost computer tool for teaching word meanings to nonverbal children with ASD.
  • Amy Donaldson, Ph.D. (Portland State University), will evaluate a new social communication intervention that combines video modeling with sibling participation. 
  • 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.

Targeted Research Awards

  • Parul Christian, Ph.D. (Johns Hopkins University), will screen for autism among children in 600 villages in Bangladesh. The study will be among the first to estimate autism prevalence in South Asia. The researchers will also study how vitamin supplementation during pregnancy and infancy affects autism risk. The study promises to shed light on how nutrition may contribute to autism. 
  • Diana Robins, Ph.D. (Georgia State University), will evaluate the accuracy of a web-based version of the M-CHAT autism screen for toddlers.
  • Gregory Young, Ph.D. (University of California, Davis), received continued funding to expand Autism Speaks Baby Siblings Research Consortium (BSRC) database. This resource promotes collaboration in infant sibling research. It has already provided vital support for six research studies.
  • Craig Newschaffer, Ph.D. (Drexel University), and Joseph Piven, M.D. (University of North Carolina), received continued funding to combine and enhance two large studies of infant siblings at risk for ASD. The two studies are the Infant Brain Imaging Study (IBIS) and Early Autism Risk Longitudinal Investigation (EARLI).  IBIS researchers are exploring the association between major brain and behavior changes. EARLI researchers are investigating associations between environmental exposures and autism risk. Autism Speaks supports their collaboration to expand the scope and findings of each project to better understand early risk factors for ASD

To find out more about these and other studies funded by Autism Speaks, please explore our Grant Search. This research is made possible by the generosity and passion of Autism Speaks’ community of families, donors and volunteers.