This afternoon in New York City, Autism Speaks Co-founder Bob Wright, Autism Speaks President Liz Feld and Chief Science Officer Rob Ring ushered in the latest class of the nation’s best and brightest autism researchers at a luncheon for the 2013 Weatherstone Predoctoral Fellows.
The 2013 Fellows are a diverse group from around the United States. What they have in common is their desire to help everyone affected by autism around the world.
Many of the ten scientists expressed personal reasons for choosing this path, which ranged from family members on the spectrum to previous jobs assisting people with autism. Their intended fields of study include: stress responses in adults with autism, uterine environments, DNA packing, biomarkers for early diagnosis and environmental conditions, and immune responses in pregnancy.
The scholars are the fifth such class. The Dennis Weatherstone Fellowship Program began in 2008 with a generous gift from the Stavros Niarchos Foundation in honor of the late Dennis Weatherstone, its first chairman. Lady Marion Weatherstone was on hand to read a letter written by her daughter about her 11-year-old son Hunter, who is affected by autism. Each of the ten 2013 Weatherstone Predoctoral Fellow projects will run two years.
- Eyal Ben-David (Hebrew University) will study biomarkers with the potential to identify different types of autism. He is focusing on gene networks involved in gene expression and the prevention of DNA damage.
- Abigail Hogan-Brown (Northwestern University) will look at how variations in expression of a gene protein (FMRP) affect over-arousal and language ability in children with autism and Fragile X syndrome.
- Lauren Bishop-Fitzpatrick (University of Pittsburgh) will examine how stress (as measured by cortisol and heart rate activity) affects the ability of adults with autism to adapt to change in their everyday lives.
- Laura Edwards* (Harvard University) will use a novel, non-invasive brain imaging technique to study the brain systems associated with impaired social behavior in children with autism and their unaffected siblings. (*awarded in 2012 and deferred until 2013).
- Frank Fishburn (Georgetown University) will evaluate near-infrared spectroscopy as a less-restrictive method for monitoring brain activity in children with autism spectrum disorder.
- Whitney Guthrie (Florida State University) will study how well a parent-implemented intervention for toddlers (18 to 36 months) improves function and quality of life for children at ages 5 to 7.
- Natasha Ludwig (Georgia State University) will examine the effectiveness of nonverbal measures of social understanding as a way to reliably identify ASD in toddlers.
- Bo Park (Drexel University) will investigate prenatal influences that may help explain autism’s markedly higher prevalence in boys.
- Alison Singer (Johns Hopkins University) will track parents’ work-related exposure to asthma-provoking chemicals during pregnancy. The goal is to determine how the inflammation of an asthmatic reaction in the mother may affect prenatal brain development and autism risk.
- Avery Voos (University of California, Santa Barbara) will examine whether early intervention in the form of pivotal response training (PRT) can produce positive changes in brain activity in children with autism.