Skip navigation

Calls to Action

Identifying Preventable Environmental Influences on Autism

April 21, 2014


A guest post by Linda Birnbaum, director of the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences and the National Toxicology Program.

At the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS), we provide global leadership for innovative research to prevent disease and disability, including autism spectrum disorder (ASD). We hope to reduce the risk that children will develop autism by learning more about what environmental factors play a role and when they have the most influence.

This research is important and urgent. As most visitors to this website know, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recently updated its estimate of autism’s prevalence to 1 in 68 children in this country. This was based on 2010 records and is around double the prevalence reported 10 years earlier.

To respond to this increase, NIEHS has been investing more in autism research with almost $40 million spent in the last decade. As a whole, the NIH spent $186 million on autism research in the 2013 fiscal year.  

This funding represents a research partnership. We work with autism interest groups such as Autism Speaks, as well as medical schools, research institutions and other organizations. Together, we sponsor meetings and share knowledge.

For example, we fund the Childhood Autism Risks from Genetics and the Environment (CHARGE) study at the University of California, Davis. It’s one of the first large autism studies to look at a wide range of environmental factors.

From this study, we now know that taking folic acid before conception and during early pregnancy helps to lessen autism risk.  Also, recent studies have shown that prenatal exposure to high levels of air pollution is associated with higher autism risk. This is especially true for those with a certain genetic makeup. While these studies don’t establish cause and effect, they provide us with important clues and guide future research on how air pollution affects the brain.

Our research into environmental influences on brain development may provide information about the behavior problems and co-occurring conditions experienced by people with autism.  Other research is evaluating parental exposure to chemicals at work and the age of the father at conception, as possible contributors to autism spectrum disorder.

NIEHS also funds researchers looking at how contaminants may affect the way genes work and how environmental factors interact with genes that play a role in autism. We hope this information leads to new treatments and prevention strategies. It can also show us who may be most vulnerable to environmental exposures.

I want to thank all the families who participated in CHARGE and other autism studies. Because of you, we have made significant strides in understanding some of the environmental factors involved in autism. But we still need to learn much more.

Please join me Tuesday, April 22 from 2-3 pm ET, for an interactive virtual forum on autism and the environment. You can ask questions and hear leading scientists discuss how they are working to better understand the links between environmental factors and autism.

Other panelists will include Alan Brown, from Columbia University; Irva Hertz-Picciotto, from the University of California, Davis; Avi Reichenberg, from the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai; and Heather Volk, from the University of Southern California in Los Angeles.

We’ll take as many of your questions as we can in this one-hour webcast. For more information and to register, click here.