The National Institutes of Health has awarded $5.3 million in initial one-year funding to the latest two recipients of the Autism Centers of Excellence (ACE) program. With these awards, announced on World Autism Awareness Day, these and nine other ACE centers around the country are now being funded for up to five years. The program was created in 2007 to launch an intense and coordinated research effort aimed at identifying the causes of autism spectrum disorders (ASD) and finding new treatments.
ASDs are complex neurodevelopmental disorders that affect how a person behaves, interacts with others, and communicates and learns. The symptoms, skills, and levels of disability present in people diagnosed with an ASD vary widely.
“While progress in research on ASD has been rapid, complex questions remain about the causes of these disorders, how to detect them very early, and how to intervene most effectively,” said National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) Director Dr. Thomas Insel. “Centers receiving ACE funding have marshaled the interdisciplinary expertise and technical resources needed to move the science forward as quickly as possible.”
The new ACE awards will fund two research networks, or consortia of research centers, each focusing on specific aims:
• Sally J. Rogers, Ph.D., University of California, Davis MIND Institute. The UC Davis network will conduct multi-site randomized clinical trials to provide information on what effects the style of early intervention for young children with autism, and the intensity of treatment (number of hours per week), have on children's development. The two styles being compared are naturalistic, play-oriented intervention vs. adult-directed teaching. A second study aims to determine whether toddlers who received early intervention in a previous clinical trial show long-term benefits from the intervention. In an earlier trial, toddlers receiving the intervention showed major improvements in IQ, language, adaptive behavior, and severity of their diagnosis over the two-year study period. The current study will follow participants up to 6-7 years of age. The questions being addressed in both studies have important implications for health care systems, communities, and families seeking treatment for their children. Centers participating with UC Davis are the McLean Hospital, Belmont, Mass.; the University of Washington, Seattle; and Vanderbilt University, Nashville.
• Daniel Geschwind, M.D., Ph.D., University of California, Los Angeles. The UCLA ACE will build on the network’s earlier work identifying genetic variants associated with autism susceptibility, with an important new emphasis: the network aims to recruit at least 600 African-American families with a child with an ASD. The network will look for gene variants associated with autism in Americans with self-reported African ancestry, and test genetic risk factors identified in white populations to see what role those gene variants may play in the disorder in those of African descent. Genetic data generated by the study will be made available by Internet to the larger research community. The work will also include an evaluation of disparities in diagnosis and access to care. Scientists at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York City; Emory University, Atlanta; Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore; Washington University, St. Louis; and Yale University, New Haven, Conn., will carry out this study with UCLA.
The ACE program was established to support collaborative, multi-disciplinary science aimed at exploring the causes and identifying the most effective treatments for ASDs. In addition to NIMH, the NIH institutes that support the ACE program are the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders, the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, and the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke.