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Autism Speaks Approves New Round of High-Priority Research Projects

Grants include translational postdoc fellowships and research on dementia in older adults with autism
June 26, 2013

This week, Autism Speaks committed $685,968 to support new studies in high-priority areas of autism research. The funding includes six translational postdoctoral fellowships and a study on dementia in older persons with autism. To date, Autism Speaks has committed nearly $199 million for research that advances understanding of the causes, prevention, treatment and cure of autism spectrum disorders (ASD).  

“These awards fund cutting-edge projects that will provide critical information and tools for the development of more effective treatments and improving quality of life for people with autism spectrum disorder,” says Autism Speaks Chief Science Officer Robert Ring, Ph.D., “Our postdoctoral fellowship awards will ensure that new talent is being recruited into the field and that they’ll have the resources to establish what we hope will be lifelong careers in autism research.”

Translational Postdoctoral Fellowships

Autism Speaks postdoctoral fellowships support talented scientists pursuing training in autism-related translational research. Successful applicants have projects that bridge laboratory research and real-life applications that promise to directly benefit individuals and families affected by autism. Each project’s training plan includes mentoring by leading experts in basic and clinical research.

In April, a panel of experts reviewed 47 prospective projects. Of those rated in the “outstanding to excellent” range, the following were chosen for their distinctive relevance to the needs of our community:

Sleep disturbance as early autism marker: Gena Glickman, Ph.D., of the University of California, San Diego, will characterize light exposure and sleep-wake patterns in 5- to 10-year-olds with autism. She will test the idea that sleep disturbances are early biomarkers for ASD. This could advance early diagnosis and therapy for at-risk infants.

Real-time brain-activity feedback: Ning Liu, Ph.D., of Stanford University, will use functional near infrared spectroscopy (fNIRS) to enable therapists to monitor brain activation responses in individuals with autism during therapy sessions. This feedback can also be shared with the individuals receiving therapy. This project promises to advance the use of fNIRS to assess and enhance treatment.

Social difficulty & brain response to positive feedback: Emily Neuhaus, Ph.D., of Seattle Children’s Hospital, will use electroencephalography and event-related potential methods to explore links between autism-related social impairment and the brain’s response to rewarding information.

Rapamycin for tuberous sclerosis & autism: Rachel Reith, Ph.D., of the National Institute of Mental Health, will use a mouse model of tuberous sclerosis complex to examine how rapamycin alters brain-protein production. The long-term goal is to develop medicines for tuberous sclerosis and autism.

Brain-cell model for medicine assessment: Jason Stein, Ph.D., of the University of California, Los Angeles, will create autism brain-cell models based on specific autism risk genes. Such information can advance the screening of potential medicines as well as other autism research goals.

Understanding difficulties in sensory processing: Paige Weinger, Ph.D., at Mount Sinai’s Icahn School of Medicine, will use brain responses to visual cues to explore hypersensitivities and hyposensitivities in children with autism. She will identify brain-activity patterns in severely affected children, unaffected siblings and children from families unaffected by autism. The aim is to develop rapid and reliable biomarkers that advance understanding and identification of difficulties in sensory processing.

Dementia in Older Persons with ASD

With a targeted research grant, Autism Speaks is also supporting a study on dementia in older adults with autism. Marsha Mailick, Ph.D., of the University of Wisconsin Waisman Center, will determine whether persons with autism have increased risk for dementia in later life. She will also develop a dementia screening tool for adults with ASD. This expands on Dr. Mailick’s current Autism Speaks-funded study examining quality of life in middle-aged adults with autism. Both projects involve one of the world’s largest groups of adult study participants with autism.

“Autism is a growing public health crisis, and these numbers underscore the need for a powerful and appropriate national strategy on autism,” says Autism Speaks President Liz Feld. “Through the generosity of our families, volunteers, donors and partners, Autism Speaks continues to play a pivotal role in catalyzing innovation and funding groundbreaking research that has the potential to transform lives.”

To learn more about these research grants, click on the bolded topic links. Explore all the research Autism Speaks is funding with this website’s Grant Search. This research and all that we do at Autism Speaks is made possible by our passionate community of families and supporters.