|NIH Funds New Program to Investigate Causes
and Treatment of Autism
The National Institutes of Health will intensify its efforts to
find the causes of autism and identify new treatments for the disorder,
through a new research program.
The Autism Centers of Excellence (ACE) program represents a consolidation
of two existing programs, the Studies to Advance Autism Research
and Treatment (STAART) and Collaborative Programs of Excellence
in Autism (CPEA) programs into a single research effort.
“The consolidation was needed to capitalize on the gains made
by the NIH research effort in autism,” said Elias Zerhouni, M.D.,
Director of the National Institutes of Health. NIH autism program
officials hope to expand on earlier discoveries made by research
previously supported by the NIH.
The NIH Institutes providing funding and expertise for the effort
are the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development,
the National Institute of Deafness and other Communication Disorders,
the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, the National
Institute of Mental Health and the National Institute of Neurological
Disorders and Stroke.
Autism is a complex brain disorder involving communication and
social difficulties as well as repetitive behavior or narrow interests.
Autism is often grouped with similar disorders, all of which may
be referred to collectively as autism spectrum disorders (ASD).
The underlying causes of ASD are unclear. Currently, there is no
cure for the disorders and treatments are limited.
The ACE program will encompass research centers and research networks.
The research centers will foster collaborations between teams of
specialists, who share the same facility so that they can address
a particular research problem in depth. For example, specialists
in brain imaging might collaborate with behavior researchers to
determine if a particular behavior is associated with a difference
in brain structure. They might also consult with a team of genetics
experts to find a hereditary basis for their observations.
ACE networks consist of researchers at many facilities in locations
throughout the country, all of whom work together on a single research
question. Because networks encompass multiple sites, they can recruit
large numbers of participants with a particular disorder.
Initially, five centers and one network will receive funding in
2007 to study ASD. Funding for a second set of ACE research programs
will be announced in 2008.
All ACE award recipients will contribute their data to the National
Database for Autism Research (NDAR). Housed at NIH, NDAR is a Web-based
tool that autism researchers around the world can use to collect
and share information on autism.
The 2007 ACE program Center award recipients are:
— Edwin H. Cook (University of Illinois at Chicago):
Researchers at the University of Illinois at Chicago ACE Center
will focus on understanding the repetitive behavior seen in ASD.
Known as “insistence on sameness,” this behavior is a hallmark
of ASD. Examples of insistence on sameness include wanting to wear
the same clothes every day, taking the same route to work or school,
or becoming fixated on certain subject matter, such as buildings
or cars. Center researchers will focus on genetic factors as well
as brain chemicals and brain functions that could account for repetitive
behaviors in people with ASD, and test whether genetic differences
influence how individuals respond to certain medications intended
to reduce the occurrence of these behaviors.
— Eric Courchesne (University of California, San
Diego): Researchers at the UCSD ACE Center also will use brain
imaging to track brain development in children believed to be at
risk for autism spectrum disorders. Unlike other ACE program projects,
which will attempt to identify forerunners of ASD in the siblings
of children with ASD, the UCSD researchers will study infants who
have been referred by their physicians. The physicians will make
the referrals on the basis of a checklist of behaviors that are
similar to those of older children with ASD. The primary goal of
this center is to identify brain or other physical differences
that might predispose a child to autism. The UCSD Center will collect
some of the first information ever obtained on how the brains of
very young children with autism process and respond to information.
— Geraldine Dawson (University of Washington).
Researchers at the University of Washington ACE Center will seek
to identify genes and other potential factors that may predispose
an individual toward ASD, as well as factors that might protect
against them. In addition to genes, the researchers will try to
determine the risk of ASD by examining communication difficulties,
early behaviors, patterns in the sounds babies make, and brain
structure and activity patterns. Researchers will also try to determine
whether certain types of interactions between the parent and baby
can decrease the chances for ASD.
— Nancy J. Minshew (University of Pittsburgh):
Researchers at the University of Pittsburgh ACE Center will study
how people with ASD learn and understand information. Research
shows that the ability to organize information into categories
is critical to language development. The Pittsburgh researchers
will use brain imaging techniques to study how infants at risk
for autism and toddlers diagnosed with the disorder place information
into categories. Researchers will also use brain imaging techniques
to study which parts of the brain are activated in people with
and without ASD when processing information and emotions.
— Marian D. Sigman (University of California,
Los Angeles): Researchers at the UCLA ACE Center will seek to understand
how ASD affects the ability to communicate. The researchers will
try to find clues to language-related communications problems by
looking at genes, behavior and brain structure and functioning.
The researchers also are interested in disorders that affect the
mirror neurons. Mirror neurons are brain cells that become active
either when a person performs an action or watches the action performed
by someone else. When many patients with ASD are asked to imitate
behaviors, images of their brains show that their mirror neurons
are less active than those of other people. The researchers will
try to stimulate the mirror neurons of people with ASD by having
them follow a set of instructions to complete a task.
The 2007 ACE program Network award lead recipient is:
— Joseph Piven (University of North Carolina at
Chapel Hill): In hopes of identifying brain differences in children
who develop ASD, researchers at this Network of sites operating
under the direction of the University of North Carolina will use
brain imaging techniques to compile images of the brains of very
young infants. Some of these children may go on to develop ASD.
Their brain images will be compared to those of other infants,
to identify differences between children who develop autism and
those who do not. While previous studies have documented the enlarged
brains often seen in ASD patients, little is known about the abnormal
processes during early brain development in children with ASD.
The research could offer new insights that lead to earlier diagnosis
The NICHD sponsors research on development, before and after birth;
maternal, child, and family health; reproductive biology and population
issues; and medical rehabilitation. For more information, visit
the Institute’s Web site at http://www.nichd.nih.gov/.
The National Institutes of Health (NIH) — The Nation's
Medical Research Agency — includes 27 Institutes and
Centers and is a component of the U.S. Department of Health and
Human Services. It is the primary federal agency for conducting
and supporting basic, clinical and translational medical research,
and it investigates the causes, treatments, and cures for both
common and rare diseases. For more information about NIH and
its programs, visit www.nih.gov.