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Discover Article Analyzes Recent Developments, Concepts

October 14, 2007

April 10, 2007 


This month autism is featured in a new in-depth article in the April issue of Discover magazine. In "Autism: It's Not Just in the Head," reporter Jill Neimark provides an analysis of a few of the latest developments and concepts in autism research. The article focuses on how autism, often thought of as simply a brain disorder, is now being investigated by some researchers as a more general disorder that may also affect the immune and gut systems.


Many researchers and projects described in the article were funded by Autism Speaks, Cure Autism Now (CAN) and the National Alliance for Autism Research (NAAR). These include:

Martha Herbert, M.D., Ph.D., recipient of one of the first CAN Young Investigator grants (1998), which allowed her to enter the field of autism research. She also received a NAAR pilot award (2002) to explore EEG in infant siblings and a CAN Innovator Award (2004) to study white matter abnormalities. Her recent research has focused on understanding the basis for the brain enlargement found in autism. Through this funding, her research has shown that much of the brain overgrowth can be accounted for by volume increases in specific regions of white matter, especially those in the frontal lobes.

Carlos Pardo, M.D., recipient of a CAN Pilot Project grant (2003) to study neuroinflammation. Dr. Pardo, a neuropathologist who previously specialized in studying brain inflammation in Alzheimer's and HIV, used his CAN funding to turn his expertise to autism. With brain tissue provided by the Autism Speaks' Autism Tissue Program, Dr. Pardo documented for the first time the presence of cellular and humoral immunopathological reactions in patients with autism. Dr. Pardo also recently served as a scientific chair of the Immunology and Autism Workshop organized by CAN/Autism Speaks in order to focus attention on the potential link between autism and the immune system.

Pat Levitt, Ph.D., chair of CAN's Scientific Advisory Board from 2003-2007. Using DNA samples from families in CAN's Autism Genetics Resource Exchange program, Dr. Levitt discovered that inheritance of a particular variant of a gene called c-MET is associated with an increased risk for developing autism. Dr. Levitt's research suggests that this gene may provide an underlying susceptibility to autism when combined with other genetic or environmental risk factors.

Isaac Pessah, Ph.D., recipient of CAN's inaugural Environmental Innovator Award (2006) for recognition of his work detailing the biological impact of exposure to various toxins, including mercury and chemicals in flame retardants. His newest project funded by AS/CAN will investigate the hypothesis that these toxins may be acting upon underlying genetic differences in Ca2+ signaling to ultimately affect brain and immune function in autism.

Craig Newschaffer, Ph.D., funded by CAN to produce a review paper on the secular trend in the occurrence of autism (2000) and recipient of two pilot grants from NAAR (2005) to study the fetal environment and early perturbations in the immune system in people with autism. Dr. Newschaffer is also a principle of the Autism Speaks-CDC international epidemiology research network.

Autism Speaks congratulates these researchers for their important contributions to changing the way autism is conceptualized. As detailed in the article, establishing the interplay between genetic and environmental risk factors and studying their combined impact on both brain and non-brain systems are two much-needed areas of focus. It will only be through support of such innovative research that the causes and biological basis of autism will be resolved.

The Discover article can be viewed in its entirety by clicking here.