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Autism Speaks Names 2014 Meixner Postdoctoral Fellows in Translational Research

Supporting early careers in autism research while advancing diagnosis, treatment and support for those living with autism
June 26, 2014

Autism Speaks is pleased to announce its 2014 class of Meixner Postdoctoral Fellows in Translational Research. The fellowship program invests in rising talent within the autism research community and is supported by a generous gift by the estate of the late Charles Meixner.

“This class of fellows continues to build upon Autism Speaks’ investment into the next generation of autism researchers,” says Autism Speaks Chief Science Officer Robert Ring, “while also emphasizing ‘bench-to-bedside’ approaches to treat the growing number of individuals and families affected by ASD.”

The Meixner Postdoctoral Fellowship in Translational Research program supports projects that bridge laboratory science and applications that directly involve individuals affected by autism spectrum disorder (ASD). Each fellow works under the guidance of mentors who rank among the field's pioneers in basic and clinical research. The goal is to train a new generation of autism researchers while translating basic science into new and effective ways of diagnosing, treating and supporting individuals living with autism. Each fellowship spans two years.

The lives of Charles and Maria Teresa Meixner were profoundly affected by autism when their five-year-old daughter Caroline was diagnosed with what was then termed infantile schizophrenia. “Little was known about the disorder at that time and even less was available with respect to intervention and treatment,” said Meixner family spokesperson Hector de Marchena. “For this reason, our Uncle Charles made clear his desire to bequeath this gift to Autism Speaks.”

On the announcement of this year’s fellows, de Marchena adds: “Our family would like to extend our best wishes and appreciation to these bright young researchers as they further our understanding of autism in ways that will positively and directly benefit families. I think Uncle Charles would be enormously gratified to see his gift advance such important research while launching careers with the potential to transform what it means to live with autism.”

This year’s class of fellows and their projects include:

Brain responses to virtual reality social cognition training in adults with ASD. Daniel Yang, at Yale University, will use magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) and electroencephalography (EEG) to study brain responses to a behavioral training program that improves social communication skills in young adults with autism. The goal is to use the findings to make such interventions more effective. Dr. Yang’s mentors at Yale include Fred Volkmar and Brent Vander Wyk.

PET/MRI investigation of brain inflammation in ASD. Nicole Zurcher Wimmer, at Massachusetts General Hospital, will combine MRI and positron emission tomography (PET) to examine relationships between brain inflammation and brain network connectivity in individuals with autism. Specifically she will look for activation of brain cells known as microglia and astrocytes. This project may identify important biomarkers for one or more subtypes of autism. Dr. Wimmer’s mentors at Mass General include Jacob Hooker, Christopher McDougle and Nouchine Hadjikhani.

EEG biomarkers of language and literacy abilities in minimally verbal children with ASD. Charlotte DiStefano, at the University of California-Los Angeles, will identify EEG biomarkers related to language and literacy abilities in minimally verbal children with autism. Goals include identifying which subgroups will respond best to different types of therapy programs. Dr. DiStefano’s mentors at UCLA include Shafali Jeste, Sandra Loo and April Benasich.

Discovery and function of gene regulatory networks involving autism risk genes. Jasmine Plummer, at Children’s Hospital Los Angeles, will study the expression of genes associated with autism risk at a brain-systems level. She will use gene regulatory network models that capture interactions between genes and their regulators. This promises to generate deeper understanding of the brain networks involved in autism. Dr. Plummer’s mentors at Children’s Hospital include Pat Levitt and Michele Kipke.

Neural synchrony and plasticity in children with autism. Sarah Schipul, at the University of North Carolina, will use EEG readings to compare the synchronization of brain activity in children with or without ASD. In particular, she will examine whether disruptions in brain activity affect behavior and whether such measures can be used to gauge the benefits of potential medicines and other interventions. Dr. Schipul’s mentors at UNC include Aysenil Belger and Grace Baranek.

Studying and improving social learning in toddlers with ASD using interactive eye tracking. Quan Wang, at Yale University, will use an eye-tracking system to improve our understanding of differences in children’s learning styles. This project will also assess whether new intervention programs using this technology can improve attention to social cues. Dr. Wang’s mentors at Yale include Frederick Shic and Katarzyna Chawarska.