NEW YORK, N.Y. (December 11, 2008) – Autism Speaks, the nation's largest organization dedicated to funding and facilitating autism research, announced today that it has awarded more than $2.4 million in grants to support basic and clinical research that utilizes a variety of approaches to investigate the underlying biology and causes of autism spectrum disorders (ASD).
Two types of basic science grants were awarded: eight pilot grants will explore newer, particularly innovative lines of research; and five basic and clinical grants will build on more established research themes. These five selected studies include research in potential prenatal factors that confer a risk of autism, the identification of subtypes of sleep and behavioral problems in children with autism, and how neural connectivity is affected in the brains of individuals with autism. Many of these grants are in areas of current parent concern including environmental risk factors such assisted reproductive treatment and bullying.
Dr. Geri Dawson, Autism Speaks Chief Science Officer, expressed her excitement about the new pilot studies. “These studies are all ground-breaking. Some will explore ways to help people with autism function better in social situations,” she said. “Others will explore new potential environmental risk factors. Several are using autism genetic findings to help lay the foundation for developing drug treatments for autism.”
Funded two-year pilot studies include:
- Investigation of social difficulties in adolescents with Asperger's or high-functioning autism by identifying the behavioral factors that can lead to the “bullying” or victimization of these children by their peers (Elizabeth Kelley, Ph.D., Queen's Univ.). This study seeks better ways for parents and teachers to intervene in order to promote social inclusion.
- Examination of assisted reproductive treatment, such as in vitro fertilization, as a potential risk factor for autism (Avi Reichenberg, Ph.D., Institute of Psychiatry, King's College London). Researchers will examine two decades of population-based data to determine whether there is a link between the use of assisted reproductive treatment and risk for autism.
- Study of whether epilepsy-associated patterns of brain activity during sleep can be linked to behavioral problems in children with autism while they are awake (Gregory Barnes, M.D. Ph.D., Vanderbilt Univ.). Results from this study will help identify some of the causes of sleep disruption in autism and allow clinicians to better plan treatments to help children sleep well at night and function better during the day.
- Large-scale analyses of genetic risk factors will evaluate how multiple different genes converge on common biochemical pathways that lead to autism. By understanding the interconnections and interactions between different genes that have been linked to autism, the biochemical pathways can be pinpointed and potentially lead to medical treatments based on these pathways. One study (Kathleen Millen, Ph.D., Univ. of Chicago) will explore a set of genes involved in the development of the cerebellum, a region of the brain that is often anatomically abnormal in people with autism, seeking clues to genetic causes. A second study (Maja Bucan, Ph.D., Univ. of Pennsylvania) will use very new bioinformatics approaches to examine whether several autism susceptibility genes are involved in common molecular pathways.
- Focused studies on the biology of a particular set of genes, called the neurexins and neuroligins. Mutations in neurexins and neuroligins have been found in some individuals with autism and the proteins made by these genes are thought to be involved in the function of synapses, the connections between neurons. One pilot study (Davide Comoletti, Ph.D., Univ. of California San Diego) will determine how these mutations affect the ability of the proteins to bind to each other, seeking opportunities to correct the abnormal interaction. In a second study (Linda Restifo, M.D. Ph.D., Univ. of Arizona), researchers will develop a new automated method to study the functions of neuroligins and neurexins. They will use neurons engineered to make the mutated proteins and test them in a high-throughput screen of FDA-approved drugs. This will evaluate the ability of candidate drugs to reverse the effects of these autism-associated mutations. These neurons will also be tested for their sensitivity to thimerosal.
- Creation of a new animal model focused on neurons expressing oxytocin and vasopressin, two neuropeptides involved in normal social behavior (Shlomo Wagner, Ph.D., Haifa University). Researchers will develop genetically engineered to identify, observe, and manipulate these neurons seeking a foundation for parallel research into if and how these networks are disturbed in people with autism, and whether modulation of the peptides may serve as a viable treatment option.
Funded three-year Basic and Clinical Grants include:
- Examination of prenatal environmental factors that may cause neurodevelopmental problems in the fetus, contributing to a higher risk of autism. One epidemiological study (Richard Ebstein, Ph.D., Hebrew Univ.) will examine the role of drugs that are commonly administered to pregnant women to either prevent or induce labor. A second investigation (Theo Palmer, Ph.D., Stanford Univ.) will examine how the maternal immune system activates during pregnancy and may affect fetal development, focusing on the effects of maternal infections on placental functioning, and specifically any effect on fetal brain development from blood and oxygen supply to the developing fetus.
- Large-scale analysis of the associations between sleep problems and behavior in children with autism (Susan Mayes, Ph.D., Penn State College of Medicine). In a one year study, researchers will determine whether any particular sleep disturbances are correlated with specific learning, mood, or behavioral problems. The resulting information would be invaluable in developing strategies to improve behavior in children with autism, and positively impact the quality of life for families.
- Studies to consider the emerging theory that autism results from changes in neural connectivity in the developing brain and is a biological basis for the disorder. These studies will utilize non-invasive techniques to measure brain activity and the communication between different brain regions to study neural connectivity to develop enhanced interventions to facilitate normal brain circuitry. One imaging study (Natalia Kleinhans, Ph.D., Univ. of Washington) examines neuroimaging data collected from children of preschool ages to adolescence to learn whether early brain overgrowth contributes to later problems in functional connectivity in the brain. A second study (Tal Kenet, Ph.D., Massachusetts General Hospital) will examine whether abnormal connectivity patterns can explain the unusual sensory perceptions experienced by individuals with autism.
“We are extremely pleased to announce these new set of pilot study and basic and clinical research grants,” said Dr. Dawson. “All of these grants were chosen for their potential impact on quality of life of individuals with autism and the development of new treatments.”
Lay abstracts describing the 13 newly funded grants can be viewed here.
Year to date, Autism Speaks has awarded a total of more than $10.7 million in new science research grants, including grants announced in July that will investigate various aspects of genetics in preventing autism, interplay between genetics and environmental factors, the role of the immune system, and exploring the intellectual capability of individuals with ASD.
Autism is a complex brain disorder that inhibits a person's ability to communicate and develop social relationships, and is often accompanied by 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 prevalence 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 and treatments for autism, and to advocating for the needs of individuals with autism and their families. It was founded in February 2005 by Suzanne and Bob Wright, the grandparents of a child with autism. Bob Wright is Senior Advisor at Lee Equity Partners and served as vice chairman, General Electric, and chief executive officer of NBC and NBC Universal for more than twenty years. Autism Speaks merged with the Autism Coalition for Research and Education (ACRE), the National Alliance for Autism Research (NAAR) and Cure Autism Now (CAN), bringing together the nation's leading autism advocacy organizations. To learn more about Autism Speaks, please visit www.autismspeaks.org.