The new network grant, which will fund collaborative work by Geschwind and experts at other autism centers around the country, is part of the NIH's Autism Centers of Excellence program, which was launched in 2007 to support coordinated research into the causes of autism spectrum disorders (ASD) and the discovery of new treatments.
Autism spectrum disorders are complex developmental disorders that affect how a person behaves, interacts with others, communicates and learns. According to the Centers for Disease Control, ASD affects approximately one in 88 children in the U.S.
Geschwind's award will allow him to build on his earlier work identifying genetic variants associated with an increased susceptibility to autism while adding an important new emphasis. The research network he leads — which also includes scientists from the Albert Einstein College of Medicine, Emory University, Johns Hopkins University, Washington University and Yale University — aims to recruit at least 600 African American families who have a child diagnosed with an ASD for genetic testing.
While nearly all previous research on the genetics of autism has focused on subjects of European descent rather than those of African or other ancestries, it is critical to study different populations to understand if current genetic findings in ASD can be generalized to a broader population, said Geschwind, a professor of neurology, psychiatry and genetics.
To that end, he will look for gene variants associated with autism in Americans with African ancestry and then test the genetic risk factors identified in European populations to see what role they may play in the disorder in people of African descent.
Because individuals are typically a mix of different ancestries, the research group will use statistical methods that enable them to identify chromosomal markers for different ancestral origins. Genetic data generated by the study will be made available through the Internet to the larger research community.
The work will also include an evaluation of disparities in the diagnosis of autism and in access to care. The scientists will be carrying out this study with UCLA as the hub.
The award to Geschwind follows on the heels of several large ACE awards to various researchers at UCLA's Center for Autism Research and Treatment (CART) last September. At that time, CART was the only NIH Autism Center of Excellence in the nation to be awarded renewed funding for the next five years. The funding to CART supports ongoing research focused on examining genes' link to behavior, developing clinical interventions for those severely affected by autism, and explaining why autism affects more boys than girls.
This network grant will help further the work of CART, in conjunction with other UCLA programs in autism by enabling scientists to approach the study of ASD from both a research and clinical perspective. Together, these ACE grants aim to foster new ways to diagnose patients earlier and tailor treatments to each individual to create the best outcomes.