In recent years, experts have made remarkable strides in better understanding autism, including developing more effective methods of diagnosis and treatment. At Kennedy Krieger Institute, researchers are continuing to investigate this complex disorder in the hopes of not only improving diagnoses and interventions, but also discovering autism's causes and possible means of prevention. Current studies are underway by research scientists at Kennedy Krieger to examine autism from a wide variety of perspectives -- from behavioral assessments to brain imaging to cell biology and other methods.

Dr. Rebecca Landa is conducting numerous large-scale research projects aimed at detecting the earliest signs of autism, discovering how children with autism learn differently from other children, and developing early interventions for autism. She is also collaborating with other researchers to better understand the causes of autism. Her research represents some of the most compelling work being done at the Institute involving dedicated observation of children with autism. One of the most intriguing parts of her research program involves studying the development of the younger siblings of children diagnosed with autism. In addition to helping researchers understand the earliest signs of this disorder, the sibling study has led to several children being diagnosed much earlier than they might have been otherwise, allowing their families to seek intervention as soon as possible.

Dr. Paul Lipkin directs the Interactive Autism Network (IAN), an online research study, research registry and information resource that is transforming autism spectrum disorder (ASD) research not only at Kennedy Krieger, but at institutions worldwide. This project consists of two separate components: IAN Research and IAN Community. In IAN Research, families and affected individuals who live in the U.S. consent to participate in this long-term online study, agree to share the information that they contribute with qualified researchers and are notified about other studies for which they qualify. In IAN Community, any individual concerned about ASD can learn about recent research results, the importance of research and how research is conducted. Individuals can also help set the research agenda.

Since its public launch in 2007, the IAN Research study has consented over 45,400 individuals with ASD and their family members. More than 470 research projects have applied for, or are using IAN subject recruitment services. Data from the study has been distributed to 14 third-party research teams. IAN Community has received over 3 million visits.

View NPR's Morning Edition Feature on the IAN Project

Dr. Stewart Mostofsky is using cutting-edge functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) technology to explore why people with autism tend to have difficulty with motor-learning skills such as riding a tricycle or putting a key in a lock. Other researchers have already established that motor-learning and language production -- the primary skills affected by autism -- are governed by the same region of the brain. Dr. Mostofsky is using fMRI technology to determine if the brain activity of children with autism differs from that of other children when performing certain motor tasks. Understanding more about the brain abnormalities associated with autism may help direct treatment efforts, such as generating support for instructional methods that appeal to the unique learning profiles of people with autism.

Dr. Elaine Tierney and her colleagues are studying different metabolic disorders that can present with autism spectrum disorder through the Autism Metabolic Research Program at Kennedy Krieger. In 2000 and 2001, this group of researchers identified that Smith-Lemli-Opitz-Syndrome (SLOS) is associated with autism spectrum disorder. Since SLOS is known to be caused by a defect in the body's biosynthesis of cholesterol, SLOS may provide clues to the biochemistry of other autism spectrum disorders (ASD).

Dr. Tierney and colleagues published a paper in 2006, in the American Journal of Medical Genetics Part B (Neuropsychiatric Genetics), in which they describe finding that a subgroup of children with ASD have abnormally low cholesterol levels. The children's low cholesterol levels were apparently due to a limited ability to make cholesterol. This finding, in concert with their work with SLOS, has led them to believe that cholesterol may play a role in the cause of some cases of autism spectrum disorder. Dr. Tierney and colleagues at Kennedy Krieger, the National Institutes of Health and Ohio State University are performing a double-blind placebo-controlled study of cholesterol in individuals with ASD.