NIH Funds New National Study Center for Study of Autism

Julie
Lincoln
Kennedy Krieger Institute Designated As One of Eight Comprehensive Research Centers in Country

Dr. Rebecca LandaIn a major announcement, the National Institutes of Health has awarded Kennedy Krieger Institute a five-year, $7.7 million grant to become a national center devoted to autism research, focusing on neurobiologic origins of autism, as well as early detection and intervention.

The Institute joins seven other centers across the country, including University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill and Yale University, 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.

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 development that brain lead to autism spectrum disorders, understand how they impair brain function, and design effective therapies.

Investigators from Children's National Medical Center in Washington, 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."

Three major research projects are at the core of the new center. All 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.

  • 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 identified until age 3 or older. 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.

The clinical core of the STAART Center includes the Center for Autism and Related Disorders at Kennedy Krieger and the Autism Center at Children's National Medical Center. "By bringing together scientists with such diverse expertise, they can develop interdisciplinary approaches that will expand the research," Dr. Landa said.

Dr. Landa is recruiting participants for her early detection and early intervention studies. Three groups of children will be included in the early detection study: Children who are 18 months or younger who are late talkers, but who have no family history of autism; baby siblings under 14 months of age having an older sibling with autism; typically developing infants at 6 months of age. For the early intervention study, children under age 3 with autism spectrum disorders are sought. Parents interested in learning more about the study may contact Dr. Landa's team through email at reach@kennedykrieger.org or by calling the toll free number at (877) 850-3372.