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Autism Speaks Announces $3.6 Million in Grants Focusing on Environmental Factors and Autism

These New Grants will Fund Studies in the Areas of Toxicology, Immunology and Epigenetics

NEW YORK, NY (September 18, 2008) – Autism Speaks, the nation's largest autism advocacy organization, today announced that it has committed more than $3.6 million to investigate environmental risk factors for autism. Sixty applications were received, including pilot study proposals to test new hypotheses and gather preliminary data, and augmentation study proposals that will expand current large scale studies to include a new focus on the role of the environment. “These innovative studies will help us better understand how environmental factors influence risk for autism. We are particularly interested in the interaction between genetic susceptibility and exposure to specific environmental factors. We were very pleased by the high quality of the applications we received on this important topic,” noted Geri Dawson, Chief Science Officer at Autism Speaks.

The 12 approved applications ranged in approach and scope, but included areas of toxicology, immunology, epigenetics and animal models. Dr. Yong-hui Jiang at Baylor College of Medicine will be studying how folic acid supplementation, which has increased significantly over the last decade, affects epigenetic modulation of SHANK3 protein expression. This is of importance since mutations of the SHANK3 gene have been reported to be altered in individuals with autism. Epigenetics (alterations in gene function without changes in DNA structure) has received recent attention in autism spectrum disorders and may be influenced by environmental factors. A study by Dr. Robert Plomin at the Institute of Psychiatry in London will be using an existing twin registry to examine differences in epigenetic markers between identical twins who do not share a diagnosis of autism. Dr. Emile Rissman from the University of Virginia will be targeting a widely used chemical called Bisphenol A, an ingredient in some plastics, to determine if exposure induces epigenetic modifications.

Another environmental factor that will be investigated is Vitamin D. Dr. Bruce Hammock at the University of California at Davis will be utilizing the CHARGE study, which has collected blood from over 500 families affected by autism, to examine whether and why children with autism show differences in Vitamin D levels. Recently, the lack of Vitamin D in mothers and children has been reported as a potential health concern that could influence brain development and function.

The role of the immune system was another predominant topic of environmental sciences applications. Altered immune function could be a target of environmental toxicant exposure. The immune status of the fetus during development constitutes an important environmental factor in brain function. Dr. Nicholas Ponzio from the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey will be examining how T cells and cytokines function in the brain and the placenta, as well as how they affect the developing fetus. Also, Dr. Judy Van de Water at the University of California at Davis is partnering with Vanderbilt University researchers to study how changes in the expression of the MET gene, shown to be associated with autism, regulate maternal autoantibody production. Of importance, this study will also examine how environmental toxicant exposure, including ethylmercury (the major component of thimerosal) as well as a common environmental toxicant BDE-47, influences cytokine production. While the Van de Water study will examine how autoantibodies are produced, the effects on brain development of maternal autoantibodies in the prenatal environment will be studied by Dr. Betty Diamond at the Feinstein Institute.

Three projects will focus on the potential role of vaccines, specifically the role of ethylmercury or other vaccine components. These include a project by Dr. Flavio Keller at the University Bio-Medica in Rome, who will study the behavioral and pathological effects of ethyl and methyl mercury on a strain of mice that possess a certain mutation in order to examine gene and environment interactions. Dr. Mark Noble from the University of Rochester will use a genetically modified cell line to study the effects of ethylmercury and aluminum hydroxide on oxidative potential. Finally, Dr. David Baskin from Methodist Hospital in Houston will study cell proliferation in response to thimerosal exposure.

Autism Speaks is committed to funding innovative projects on potential environmental contributions to autism spectrum disorders. Thinking broadly about the role of particular exposures and how they interact with genetic risk factors are priorities of Autism Speaks research. To view a complete list of grants please visit

Autism is a complex brain disorder that inhibits a person's ability to communicate and develop social relationships, and is often accompanied by extreme behavioral challenges. Autism spectrum disorders are diagnosed in one in 150 children in the United States, affecting four times as many boys as girls. The diagnosis of autism has increased tenfold in the last decade. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have called autism a national public health crisis whose cause and cure remain unknown.

Autism Speaks is dedicated to increasing awareness of autism spectrum disorders, to funding research into the causes, prevention, treatments and cure for autism, and to advocating for the needs of affected families. It was founded in February 2005 by Suzanne and Bob Wright, the grandparents of a child with autism. Bob Wright is Vice Chairman, General Electric, and served as chief executive officer of NBC for more than twenty years. Autism Speaks has merged with both the National Alliance for Autism Research (NAAR) and Cure Autism Now (CAN), bringing together the nation's three leading autism advocacy organizations. To learn more about Autism Speaks, please visit