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Autism Speaks Announces $5 Million in New Research Grants

A Total of $30 Million Committed to Science Spending in 2007

NEW YORK, NY (December 20, 2007) -- Autism Speaks, an advocacy organization dedicated to raising funds and public awareness of autism in order to facilitate autism research, today announced that it has awarded just under $5 million for 40 new research grants to investigate the causes, biology, diagnosis, and treatment of autism. With the latest round of grants, the organization has now committed $30 million in science spending this year.

Most of the new grants awarded in this review cycle are training grants structured to educate and encourage new scientists to take up autism research. The Mentor Based Fellowships (MBF) help train young scientists for careers in autism research, while the Physician Investigator Beginning Autism Research (PIBAR) awards fund the salaries of physicians who wish to undertake autism research and thereby contribute their clinical perspective. Two other grant types, Augmentation grants and Opportunity grants, expand the scope of research projects already underway by senior scientists.

“These grants will fund research projects that offer innovative and rigorous approaches to providing urgently needed answers about autism,” said Peter Bell, Autism Speaks executive vice president of programs and services. “Autism Speaks is committed to incentivizing the very best scientific minds to pursue research that will not only help us better understand this disorder, but also improve the lives of individuals living with autism today.”

Several of the new grants deal with treatment options. A PIBAR grant project will investigate the safety and efficacy of complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) therapies in autism (Stephen Bent, M.D.). This project will survey parents regarding their use of CAM therapies, evaluate all published scientific evidence of over 50 CAM therapies used in autism, make this information freely available online, and begin pilot studies of the most promising therapies. This research will ultimately help families direct their time and money to the CAM therapies most likely to work.

Another MBF project will develop and evaluate a modified version of the PPPA assessment used to predict whether a person is likely to respond well to Pivotal Response Training. It will allow quicker assessments by autism service providers in community settings (Laura Schreibman, Ph.D.).

One project funded by an Opportunity grant is following the development of 187 children with autism as they grow into adolescents (Catherine Lord, Ph.D.), looking for predictors of adolescent outcome, measured in terms of adaptive skills, quality of life, positive affect, behavior problems, and symptoms of anxiety and depression. This research will identify coping strategies that positively influence the well being and independence of young adults with autism, and help parents prepare for the future.

Researchers have been working to identify autism subtypes, known as endophenotypes, because people of the same endophenotype may share a similar etiology, or cause, for their autism. Three new grants are looking for endophenotypes based on different traits. One MBF will evaluate an endophenotype based on temperament (Susan Bryson, Ph.D.). Previous research has shown that a subset of people with autism share a flat affect, high anxiety, and poor control of attention, and that high-risk children who fit this temperament go on to develop autism. The new project tests the reliability of this temperament endophenotype by following the development of these children into their preschool years.

Another MBF grant will search for an endophenotype based on motor abilities by evaluating coordination in children with autism and their siblings (John Constantino, M.D.). This project includes a sizable African-American population, and may potentially uncover any differences in autism presentation among other ethnic groups. Identifying endophenotypes in autism may not only simplify the search for autism's causes, but it may also lead to tools for earlier diagnosis and more individually-tailored treatments.

Several newly funded projects explore how factors during pregnancy might increase autism risk. One MBF project will investigate whether women with a diet low in omega-3 fatty acids are at an increased risk of having a child with autism (Susan Santangelo, Sc.D.). Two other MBF grants will investigate how immune responses during pregnancy might adversely affect a developing fetus. One will study whether exposure to an immune system compound called interleukin-2 (IL-2) during pregnancy results in offspring with brain inflammation, similar to that found in some individuals with autism (Nicholas Ponzio, Ph.D.). The other will study maternal antibodies that mistakenly target fetal brain tissue, which have been found in some mothers who have children with autism (Judy Van de Water, Ph.D.).

Two MBF grants will investigate abnormal gene expression among people with autism, searching for genes that have been inappropriately silenced either by DNA methylation (Arthur Beaudet, M.D.) or by microRNAs (Stephen Scherer, Ph.D.). These research projects will identify abnormal gene expression profiles in autism, and clarify how these genetic defects, perhaps in combination with environmental factors, result in autism.

Several MBF grants will investigate the brain abnormality most consistently found in autism: enlarged and disorganized “white matter” pathways that connect neurons in one part of the brain with neurons in another. One project will use post-mortem tissue from people with autism for a close-up examination of these pathways to find reasons for the enlargement (Helen Barbas, Ph.D.). Another project will use non-invasive imaging of white matter in people with autism to describe the full length of pathways involved in language development (Janet Lainhart, M.D.). Another will use functional brain imaging (fMRI) to see what areas of the brain are activated together during a visual task in people with autism (Marcel Just, Ph.D.). Finally, another project will use a mouse model of autism to explore the molecular processes that initially guide axons to their targets during development (Mustafa Sahin, Ph.D.); this will clarify how the brain may become miswired in autism.

Lay abstracts describing all 41 of the newly funded grants can be found here. Further research grant announcements, including Innovative Technology grants that will be announced in early 2008 and a Spring 2008 grant round devoted entirely to treatment-related research, will be made on www.autismspeaks.org.
 

ABOUT AUTISM
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.

ABOUT AUTISM SPEAKS
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. Suzanne and Bob Wright, the grandparents of a child with autism, founded it in February 2005. 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 www.autismspeaks.org.