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Autism Speaks Awards New Research Grants

June 21, 2012

Today Autism Speaks announced nearly $2.9 million in new funding for autism research. The newly approved projects include a Suzanne and Bob Wright Trailblazer Award, four targeted research studies, eight Weatherstone Predoctoral Fellowships and nine Postdoctoral Fellowships in Translational Research.

The grants support research across a range of high-priority areas in autism research. These include:

* environmental risk factors,

* understanding the effects of DSM-5 on autism diagnosis,

* medicine development,

* new behavioral treatments across the lifespan,

* improved access to early intervention in minority communities and

* deeper understanding of autism biology.

“We are extremely gratified by the high quality of these research projects,” says Autism Speaks Chief Science Officer Geri Dawson, Ph.D. “They focus on issues that directly affect the lives of individuals with autism. These issues include the development of new treatments, the impact of new diagnostic criteria for autism and our understanding of the causes of autism. In addition, the fellowships are so important for bringing new talent into the field.”

Wright Trailblazer Award
The new Trailblazer project will investigate the use of baby teeth to track exposure to chemicals that may affect autism risk during the prenatal and postnatal period.

“The lack of methods to determine environmental exposures during critical periods of early development has long challenged research into environmental risk factors for autism,” Dr. Dawson says of the study’s importance. “We are particularly pleased to be making this award to Raymond Palmer, an expert in preventive medicine and epidemiology at the University of Texas Health Sciences Center.” Dr. Palmer pioneered the use of lost baby teeth to detect prenatal and early childhood exposure to pesticides, drugs and other environmental chemicals in typically developing children. After further validating the method, the goal will be to compare baby teeth from children with autism to those from a control group unaffected by the disorder.

Targeted Research Grants
Targeted research projects represent timely opportunities identified by Autism Speaks science staff. All were reviewed by outside experts and Autism Speaks Scientific Review Panel. They include the following:

David Mandell, Ph.D., (University of Pennsylvania) will develop and evaluate the effects of a population-based program to improve early diagnosis and referral for autism services in an underserved minority community.

Two projects will use animal models that promise to advance the development of autism medicines. Joseph Buxbaum, Ph.D., (Mount Sinai School of Medicine) will use rat models to identify brain pathways common to several forms of autism. Richard Paylor, Ph.D., (Baylor College of Medicine) will complete his classification of autism-like behaviors in genetically engineered rat models of autism.

Laura Carpenter, Ph.D., (Medical University of South Carolina) will conduct a study to provide clearer information on the effect of proposed changes to the definition of ASD in the next edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual for Mental Disorders (DSM-5). She will also assess how these changes will affect the estimated prevalence of autism using two different population-screening methods. (Look for more about this study in our DSM-5 news column next week.)

2012 Weatherstone Projects
Autism Speaks Weatherstone Predoctoral Fellowships launch promising young scientists into careers in autism by supporting cutting-edge research under the mentorship of leading researchers. This year’s awards include the following:
* Tychele Turner (Johns Hopkins University) will use a molecular approach to explore the possible role of the X chromosome in reducing autism risk in girls and women.
* Myka Estes (University of California, Davis) will study how immune system abnormalities affect early brain development in children with autism.
* Laura Edwards (Harvard University) will use a new, non-invasive brain imaging technique called near-infrared spectroscopy to study the brain systems associated with impaired social behavior in children with autism and their unaffected siblings.
* Katherine Stavropoulos (University of California, San Diego) will study brain responses to social signals.
* Michael Grubb (New York University) and Aarti Nair (University of California, San Diego) will use functional MRI to better understand brain dysfunction in individuals with autism. Respectively, they will focus on impairments in visual attention and brain connectivity.
* Christopher Muller (Vanderbilt University) will study elevated serotonin levels and their relationship to sensory problems in autism.
John Danial (UCLA) will develop behavioral intervention methods to help reduce anxiety in individuals with autism and intellectual disability.

Postdoctoral Fellowships
Autism Speaks Postdoctoral Fellowships in Translational Research help turn scientific discoveries into treatments that improve lives. The new fellowships include the following:
* Soumya Pati (Baylor College of Medicine) will use advanced testing techniques to identify subgroups of individuals who may respond to specific medical treatments. The techniques include RNA sequencing of blood and analysis of nerve cells grown from skin stem cells. These will be compared to information from brain scans.
* Brian Teng (University of North Carolina) will study the effects of oxytocin receptor agonist drugs in mouse models of ASD.
* Dean Carson (Stanford University) will conduct a randomized controlled trial of oxytocin treatment for social deficits in children. This study will also assess a biomarker that may help identify children who will benefit from this treatment.
* Adam Eggebrecht (Washington University) will use another novel brain imaging method, called optical tomography, to map brain networks associated with autism.
* Oana Tudusciuc (California Institute of Technology) will study epilepsy patients, with or without autism, who have implanted electrodes that track seizures. This research promises to reveal how individual brain cells function differently in persons with autism.
* Garrett Anderson (Stanford University) will study the role of the CNTNAP2 gene in brain cell development and transmission.
* Ryan Yuen (Hospital for Sick Children, Toronto) will study the role of the Y chromosome in autism.
* Mary Beth Nebel (Kennedy Krieger Institute) will use new robotic techniques to help children with autism learn to imitate. This study also promises to advance understanding of brain differences associated with impaired imitation in autism.
* Elena Tenenbaum (Women and Infants Hospital and Brown University) will explore whether certain attention-directing techniques can enhance language learning in children with autism. 
Haley Speed (University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center, Dallas) will study preclinical therapeutic target validation of glutamate receptors in Shank3 models of autism.

To find out more about these and other studies funded by Autism Speaks, please explore our Grant Search. This research is made possible by the generosity and passion of Autism Speaks’ community of families, donors and volunteers.