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NIH Awards $100 Million in Autism Research Grants Funded by CARA

Many ACE Grants Based on Autism Speaks 'Seed' Money
September 06, 2012

WASHINGTON, DC (September 6, 2012) -- The National Institutes of Health (NIH) has awarded $100 million in federal grants to nine Autism Center of Excellence (ACE) research studies, many of which got started with seed money provided by Autism Speaks.

The five-year grants were funded through the Combating Autism Reauthorization Act (CARA) that was enacted last year to spearhead the federal government's response to the alarming rise in autism.

"These grants are the fruit of two years of hard work by the autism community to ensure the federal government remains focused on autism research, treatment and services," said Peter Bell, Autism Speaks executive vice president for programs and services. "Because of those efforts, the money is there to support vital research that will improve our understanding of autism, enhance the quality of life for those living with the condition and ultimately to help us solve the puzzle of autism."

The ACE Program was created to coordinate federally funded research into the causes of autism spectrum disorders (ASD) and to develop new treatments. Many of the ACE grant recipients originally received seed money for their studies from Autism Speaks.

“Several of these multi-million dollar ACE projects  are an extension of earlier pilot studies awarded by Autism Speaks to these investigators," says Autism Speaks Chief Science Officer Geri Dawson, Ph.D. "This is an exciting example of how Autism Speaks continues to leverage our donors’ investment in research to generate additional millions for autism research that can transform lives.”

The Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD) is one of five NIH institutes funding the ACE program. Alica Kau, Ph.D., with the NICHD's Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities Branch, said, "This year, the program has expanded to such areas as children and adults who have limited, or no speech, possible links between ASD and other genetic syndromes, potential treatments and the possible reasons why ASD are more common among boys than girls."

The 2012 NIH grants include:

2012 Center Grants

  • Susan Bookheimer, Ph.D. (University of California, Los Angeles)—This research group will use brain imaging technology to chart brain development among individuals having genes suspected of contributing to ASD. The researchers hope to link genetic variants to distinct patterns of brain development, structure and function in ASDs. Researchers in this center also are investigating treatments that will improve social behavior and attention in infants and acquisition of language in older children with ASD.
  • Ami Klin, Ph.D. (Emory University, Atlanta)—The Emory team will investigate risk and resilience in ASD, such as identifying factors associated with positive outcomes or social disability, starting in 1-month-old infants and will begin treatment in 12-month-olds in randomized clinical trials. Through parallel studies in model systems, the researchers will chart brain development of neural networks involved in social interaction. This center will increase understanding of how ASD unfolds across early development.
  • Helen Tager–Flusberg, Ph.D. (Boston University)—Many individuals with ASD fail to acquire spoken language, and little is known about why this is so. This research team will use brain imaging technologies in an effort to understand why these individuals do not learn to speak, with the goal of helping them to overcome this limitation. The research team will also test new approaches to help young children with ASD acquire language.

2012 Network Grants

  • Connie Kasari, Ph.D. (University of California, Los Angeles)—This network will compare two types of intensive, daily instruction for children with ASD who use only minimal verbal communication. Earlier research has shown that even after early language-skills training, about one-third of school aged children with ASD remain minimally verbal. Researchers plan to enroll 200 children in four cities: Los Angeles, Nashville New York City, and Rochester, N.Y.
  • Kevin Pelphrey, Ph.D. (Yale University, New Haven, Conn.)—A team of researchers from Yale, UCLA, Harvard, and the University of Washington will investigate the poorly understood nature of ASD in females. The project will study a larger sample of girls with autism than has been studied previously, and will focus on genes, brain function, and behavior throughout childhood and adolescence. The objectives are to identify causes of ASD and develop new treatments. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, ASD are almost 5 times more common among boys (1 in 54) than among girls (1 in 252).
  • Joseph Piven, M.D. (University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill)—This research group previously used brain imaging to show atypical brain development at age 6 months in infants who were later diagnosed with ASD. The group now plans to follow another group of infants at risk for ASD. In this study, they will do more frequent scans throughout infancy and until age 2, to gain a greater understanding of early brain development in children with ASD.
  • Abraham Reichenberg, Ph.D. (Mount Sinai School of Medicine, New York City)—Researchers in this network will embark on an ambitious attempt to understand how genetic and environmental factors influence the development of autism. The researchers will analyze detailed records and biospecimens from 4.5 million births involving 20,000 cases of ASD, from 7 countries (the United States, Australia, Denmark, Finland, Israel, Norway, and Sweden.) The analysis will span three generations and involve grandparents, parents, aunts, uncles, and siblings and cousins.
  • Mustafa Sahin, M.D., Ph.D. (Harvard Medical School, Boston) and Darcy Krueger, M.D., Ph.D. (Cincinnati Children’s Hospital and University of Cincinnati)—This network will recruit patients with tuberous sclerosis complex, a rare genetic disease that causes tumors in the brain and other vital organs. Patients with tuberous sclerosis complex have an increased risk for developing autism. The researchers will track brain development in infants diagnosed with tuberous sclerosis complex, to gain insights into how autism develops.
  • Linmarie Sikich, M.D. (University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill)—The researchers will test whether treatment with oxytocin nasal spray can improve social interaction and communication in children with ASD. Oxytocin is a neuropeptide (used by brain cells to communicate) and has been associated with social behaviors. The researchers plan to enroll 300 children with ASD between 3 and 17 years old from Boston, Chapel Hill and Durham, N.C.; Nashville, New York City, and Seattle.