NEW YORK, N.Y. (October 29, 2013) – Autism Speaks, the world’s leading autism science and advocacy organization, today announced three additional recipients to the fifth class of Weatherstone Predoctoral Fellows funded by the Stavros Niarchos Foundation. The fellowship program focuses on developing rising talent within the autism research community.
The Dennis Weatherstone Predoctoral was established in 2008 in memory of Sir Dennis Weatherstone, the former Chairman and CEO of J.P. Morgan. The program honors his family’s enduring commitment to the education of promising scientists beginning careers in autism research. Fellows will work directly with mentors who are leading investigators in the autism field.
“These awards are investments in the future of autism research," says Autism Speaks Chief Science Officer Rob Ring. “Our Weatherstone fellowship program provides critical resources for building the early careers of autism researchers as they work on projects that ensure the development of more effective treatments.”
The new Weatherstone Predoctoral Fellows include:
Frank Fishburn (Georgetown University) will evaluate near-infrared spectroscopy as a less-restrictive method for monitoring brain activity in children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD). Performing brain scans with traditional imaging techniques can be stressful for children with autism, as some have difficulty holding still or fear enclosed spaces. With this new tool, Mr. Fishburn will study how different areas of the brain respond while children perform mental tasks. The project will advance our understanding of how disrupted communication between brain regions may contribute to autism symptoms.
Natasha Ludwig (Georgia State University) will examine the effectiveness of nonverbal measures of social understanding as a way to reliably identify ASD in toddlers. In doing so, she seeks to help develop a more practical and accurate screening method for toddlers who show early signs of autism and/or have an older sibling on the spectrum. Such streamlined methods are critically needed as early screening for ASD becomes more common.
Bo Park (Drexel University) will investigate prenatal influences that may help explain autism’s markedly higher prevalence in boys. Her research will focus on 175 pregnant mothers who already have a child on the autism spectrum. During their pregnancies, she will analyze their urine for environmental chemicals suspected of raising levels of male hormone. After delivery, she will measure hormone levels in cord blood and the baby's first stool. She will then examine associations between these measures and the children’s scores on behavioral screening tests at 12 months of age.
To engender a network of collaboration, the Weatherstone Fellowship program will include group interaction among fellows and opportunities to meet with the Weatherstone family and the Stavros Niarchos Foundation. The fifth annual luncheon will take place on Monday, November 4 in New York City to honor the 2013 class of Fellows and the memory of Sir Dennis Weatherstone. Through the Weatherstone Fellowship program each of the Fellows will develop a network of promising science practitioners by sharing their knowledge and experiences with each other and future Weatherstone Fellows to continue the progression of autism research for years to come.
Autism is a general term used to describe a group of complex developmental brain disorders – autism spectrum disorders – caused by a combination of genes and environmental influences. These disorders are characterized, in varying degrees, by communication difficulties, social and behavioral challenges, as well as repetitive behaviors. An estimated one in 88 children in the U.S. is on the autism spectrum – a 78 percent increase in six years that is only partly explained by improved diagnosis.
About Autism Speaks
Autism Speaks is the world’s leading autism science and advocacy organization. It is dedicated to funding research into the causes, prevention, treatments and a cure for autism; increasing awareness of autism spectrum disorders; and advocating for the needs of individuals with autism and their families. Autism Speaks was founded in February 2005 by Suzanne and Bob Wright, the grandparents of a child with autism. Mr. Wright is the former vice chairman of General Electric and chief executive officer of NBC and NBC Universal. Since its inception, Autism Speaks has committed nearly $200 million to research and developing innovative resources for families. Each year Walk Now for Autism Speaks events are held in more than 100 cities across North America. On the global front, Autism Speaks has established partnerships in more than 40 countries on five continents to foster international research, services and awareness. To learn more about Autism Speaks, please visit AutismSpeaks.org.