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NIH Awards Grants for Two New Autism Research Centers

Press Release

The National Institutes of Health (NIH) announced grants totaling $19 million to support the first two research centers of a major network of facilities to focus on the biomedical and behavioral aspects of autism. The overall initiative, called STAART (Studies to Advance Autism Research and Treatment) Centers Program, was established in response to the Children’s Health Act of 2000, which calls for five new autism research centers by the end of FY 2003.

The STAART program will expand NIH’s commitment to autism research, which last year totaled $56 million. The NIH Autism Coordinating Committee (NIH/ACC) coordinates autism research conducted by its five member Institutes: The National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD), the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS), the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders (NIDCD), and the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS). All will contribute funds to the STAART program.

Autism is a brain disorder that affects social, communicative, and behavioral functioning from an early age. It is a lifelong condition for which there is currently no cure. Recent findings indicate that autism rates are increasing. Although it is known that genetics and brain dysfunction are involved in autism, exact causes have yet to be identified.

“These awards reinforce NIH’s longstanding commitment to autism research and will help advance our knowledge about this devastating condition,” said Richard Nakamura, Ph.D., acting director of NIMH and co-chair of the Interagency Autism Coordinating Committee (IACC).

The two centers, funded for 5 years each, were selected by NIH through a Request for Applications. The grants were awarded to:

Fred Volkmar, M.D., and Ami Klin, Ph.D., at Yale University (with a site at Oberlin College, Ohio) for “The Social Neuroscience of Autism and Related Disorders.” Research includes:

  • Eye Tracking Studies of Social Engagement
  • Gaze Processing in Young Children with Autism
  • Roots of Social Communication: Auditory Preferences
  • Behavioral and Neural Plasticity in Face Recognition
  • Fluvoxamine in Children and Adolescents with Anxiety Disorders

Joseph Piven, M.D., and James Bodfish, Ph.D., at University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill (with sites at University of Iowa, Institute of Psychiatry—King’s College, and Duke University) for “Gene-Brain Behavior Relationships in Autism.” Research includes:

  • The Neuropsychological Basis of the Broad Autism Phenotype
  • Neuroimaging of Cognitive and Social Deficits in Autism
  • Novel Approaches for Finding Genes in Autism
  • Gene Dissection of Autism-Related Behaviors in Mice
  • Developmental Psychopharmacology in Autism

Other funding for the STAART Centers program includes one-year developmental grants, which were already funded at six universities and research institutes to help research teams prepare applications for future centers.

The competition for the additional STAART Center sites is underway. The Children’s Health Act calls for a total of at least five centers, so at least three more will be selected in FY 2003. The research centers, along with a data coordination center and collaborative projects among the centers, will constitute the STAART program. Each center will contribute to the autism research base in the areas of causes, diagnosis, early detection, prevention, control, and treatment. Plans also include interaction with the Collaborative Programs of Excellence in Autism (CPEA), eight funded projects sponsored by the NICHD/NIDCD Network on the Neurobiology and Genetics of Autism.

NIMH is one of the 27 components that make up NIH, the Federal Government’s primary agency for biomedical and behavioral research. NIH is part of the Department of Health and Human Services.


About the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH): The mission of the NIMH is to transform the understanding and treatment of mental illnesses through basic and clinical research, paving the way for prevention, recovery and cure. For more information, visit the NIMH website.

About the National Institutes of Health (NIH): 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. NIH is the primary federal agency conducting and supporting basic, clinical, and translational medical research, and is investigating the causes, treatments, and cures for both common and rare diseases. For more information about NIH and its programs, visit the NIH website .

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