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NIH Awards More than 50 Grants to Boost Search for Causes, Improve Treatments for Autism

Recovery Act Funds Support Strategic Goals for Autism Research

Press Release

The National Institutes of Health (NIH) awarded more than 50 autism research grants, totaling more than $65 million, which will be supported with American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (Recovery Act) funds. These grants are the result of the largest funding opportunity for research on autism spectrum disorders (ASD) to date, announced in March 2009.

Awards were based on the quality of the proposed study and how well it addressed short-term research objectives detailed in the Interagency Autism Coordinating Committee's (IACC's) Strategic Plan for Autism Spectrum Disorder Research .

"These studies currently hold the best promise of revealing what causes autism, how it might be prevented, what treatments are effective, and how service needs change across the lifespan-questions noted in the IACC strategic plan as critically important to improving the lives of people with ASD and their families. The Recovery Act funding makes it possible to do the type of innovative research necessary to find these answers more quickly," said Thomas R. Insel, M.D., director of the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), part of NIH, and IACC chair.

Examples of awarded studies include:

  • Catherine Lord, Ph.D., of the University of Michigan, and Somer Bishop, Ph.D., of the Children's Hospital Medical Center in Cincinnati, will lead a two-site study to adapt the Autism Diagnostic Interview-Revised-the current gold standard for diagnosing autism-into a brief parent interview that can be done over the telephone. This new tool will help reduce research screening costs and help researchers to quickly identify potential participants for ASD studies.
  • David Amaral, Ph.D., Sally Rogers, Ph.D., and Judy Van de Water, Ph.D., all of the University of California Davis, aim to expand on a previous pilot program to identify different subtypes of autism based on behavioral, biochemical, and brain imaging markers. This research may help improve future efforts to study, diagnose, and treat children based on their subtype of autism.
  • Joseph Buxbaum, Ph.D., of Mount Sinai School of Medicine; Richard Gibbs, Ph.D., of Baylor College of Medicine; Gerard Schellenberg, Ph.D., of the University of Pennsylvania; James Sutcliffe, Ph.D., of Vanderbilt University; and Mark Daly, Ph.D., of the Broad Institute at MIT; will lead a collaborative network of research labs and centers using cutting-edge technologies to discover specific genes underlying autism. Their research will provide insight into the biology of autism and expose genes and pathways that constitute high priority targets for the development of novel treatments.
  • Sally Rogers, Ph.D., and Laurie Vismara, Ph.D., both of the University of California Davis, aim to develop and test a parent-delivered preventive intervention for infants 6-11 months old who are at high risk of developing ASD because they have an older sibling with the disorder. The intervention will focus on reducing atypical behaviors and developmental delays to help lessen or prevent the disabling symptoms associated with ASD.
  • Olga Solomon, Ph.D., of the University of Southern California, will lead a study on how race, gender, socio-economic status, family culture, and communication during clinical encounters affect the health care experiences of African American children with ASD in an urban setting. Such research may help reduce the existing disparities in ASD diagnosis and service delivery for this and possibly other underserved populations.
  • Ruth Carper, Ph.D., of the University of California San Diego, seeks to fill a gap in scientific understanding of the effects of ASD in later life. By exploring age-related changes in cognition and possible protective factors, as well as the changing service needs and quality of life concerns among adults and older people with ASD, this project may reveal targets for intervention and inform public policy.
  • Rob McConnell, M.D., of the University of Southern California, and colleagues will explore possible links between traffic-related air pollution and ASD risk. They will also examine genes that help process pollutants in the body among children with and without autism to determine how these genes may affect ASD risk.
  • Steven Camarata, Ph.D., and Mark Thomas Wallace, Ph.D., both of Vanderbilt University, will evaluate the effects of "sensory integration treatment" on communication and social skills in children with ASD. Based on desensitization techniques, this widely used but little studied treatment is believed to help reduce children's resistance to outside stimuli and improve the integration of sensory information.

In addition to the contributions of direct findings from these studies, much of the data will also be available to other researchers through the National Database for Autism Research (NDAR) . As a tool for the autism research community to exchange research related information, this use of NDAR is likely to advance the understanding of ASD heterogeneity to a far greater degree and at a more rapid pace than would be possible through any single project.

The grants will be administered by the five NIH Institutes that currently fund autism research: the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD), the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders (NIDCD), the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS), and the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS), with NIMH taking the lead on this effort and providing more than half of the total funds. This effort is included in the $5 billion in grant awards for biomedical research supported through the Recovery Act during FY 2009, as announced by President Obama during his visit to NIH on September 30, 2009.