NIH Funds New National Center for Study of Autism

May 14, 2003
Kennedy Krieger Institute one of eight comprehensive research centers in country

Baltimore - Kennedy Krieger Institute was awarded today a five-year, $7.7 million grant from the National Institutes of Health to start up a national center devoted to autism research, focusing on neurobiologic origins of autism, as well as early detection and intervention.

The Institute, which was awarded $1.5 million in the first year, joins seven other centers across the country designated as national centers dedicated to Studies to Advance Autism Research and Treatment, or STAART. The NIH expects to spend $65 million over five years. The other seven centers are: University of Washington; University of California, Los Angeles; Boston University; University of Rochester; Mt. Sinai Medical Center School, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill; and Yale University.

Kennedy Krieger's autism center will contribute significantly to scientific advances in autism by bringing together biomedical, behavioral and clinical scientists from the Institute and four other organizations in the Baltimore/Washington area to identify and explore fundamental biologic disorders of brain development that lead to autism spectrum disorders, understand how they impair brain function, and design effective therapies.

Investigators from Children's National Medical Center, Johns Hopkins University, Morgan State University and Georgetown University also are involved in the collaboration. These institutions have a long history of joint research in the area of developmental disabilities.

"Our major goal is to achieve a depth of focus in the area of motor planning, behavior and communication in autism, using a wide range of methods: clinical, imaging and neuroscience," said Dr. Rebecca Landa, director of the Center for Autism and Related Disorders at Kennedy Krieger and an internationally known clinician and researcher in the field. "We expect that this will lead to major scientific advances."

Dr. Landa's NIH-funded study, focusing on early identification of autism in infants, is one of three research projects upon which investigators of the new center will build. All of these projects focus on gaining a better understanding of how abnormalities in early brain development result in the sensory-motor, social and language impairment that characterize autism spectrum disorders.

"The center brings together expertise in many of the major research disciplines focused on autism: developmental neurobiology, mouse models and behaviors, functional and structural imaging and communication sciences," said Dr. Mark Batshaw, professor and chair of the Department of Pediatrics and vice dean of Pediatrics and Academic Affairs at George Washington University School of Medicine and Health Sciences. "By bringing together scientists with such diverse expertise, they can develop interdisciplinary approaches that will expand the research." Dr. Batshaw is the co-director of the new STAART Center.

The three research projects of the center will build on a strong foundation of existing, externally-funded, peer-reviewed research.

  • Dr. Landa's study involves the enrollment of more than 300 infant siblings of children with autism and testing them at 6, 14, 24 and 36 months of age to identify "markers" in behavior that will help in the early diagnosis of the disorder, which typically is not diagnosed until age 3 or later. The project has been expanded to develop diagnostic criteria for use in infants 18 months of age and to examine the brain basis of the expression of social and communicative abnormalities.
  • A study by Drs. Mary Blue, of Kennedy Krieger, and Christine Hohmann, of Morgan State University, focuses on the hypothesis that cognitive changes and disturbances in autistic individuals are the result of altered cerebral cortical development. Under the STAART Center, this animal study will be expanded to examine behavioral and gene alterations when serotonin is depleted in the neonatal brain.
  • Dr. Chandon Vaidya, of Georgetown University Medical Center, is conducting a study examining the neural basis of attention dysregulation in individuals with high functioning autism, using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI). Under the STAART Center, the study will be expanded to examine the neural basis of motor control and executive function in autism. This study will extend the understanding of autism provided by the other projects to a point later in life: in school-aged children.

The clinical core of the STAART Center includes the Center for Autism and Related Disorders at Kennedy Krieger, which focuses on infants and young children, and the Autism Center at Children's National Medical Center, which focuses on older children with high functioning autism.

The physical proximity of the center to the NIH permits close collaboration. The expertise of the investigators will be shared with other funded STAART Centers so that collaborative research and treatment projects can be developed.

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