My work focuses on autism and understanding how genes and environments interplay to cause this developmental disorder. Much of this work is funded by federal grants, but there can be gaps in what these grants can support, especially in new fields of research. Support from Autism Speaks has been amazing in helping fill these gaps.
In particular, Autism Speaks provided important support for two of my current projects. The funding is allowing us to study families with autism and, so, gain insights into interactions between autism risk genes and environment exposures.
The Early Autism Risk Longitudinal Investigation (EARLI) is a national study of families that have at least one child on the autism spectrum and anticipate having more children. By following these high-risk families we seek to identify causes and risk factors—be they genetic, environmental or a combination of both. Information is regularly collected from mothers enrolled in the study, and their newborns receive free developmental assessments until 3 years of age.
The second study is a genome-wide investigation of DNA methylation, or epigenetics. It will allow us to investigate how various environmental exposures can affect gene expression in ways that increase—or potentially decrease—the risk of autism. This study will place special focus on environmental exposures during crucial periods of prenatal brain development.
Autism Speaks realizes the importance of these new areas of research and has put forth great effort to ensure we can explore and, hopefully, uncover risk factors for autism that, over the long term, may lead to prevention and improved treatments.
We continue to recruit study participants. Specifically we are enrolling mothers who have one or more children with autism and who may become pregnant or who are currently less than 28 weeks pregnant. They must live near an EARLI research site (California, Maryland or Pennsylvania). For more details, please visit www.EARLIstudy.org or our Facebook page.
On behalf of the EARLI research team, I want to extend a special thanks to Autism Speaks supporters for helping make this pioneering research possible.
In the 25 days leading up to Autism Speaks’ fifth anniversary, we summarized significant advances in autism science and updates since these advances occurred. This is a time for celebration and reflection, as well as focusing on next steps. On the eve of the fifth anniversary, this opinion piece, written by Nicholas Kristof, appeared in the New York Times and has generated considerable interest.
At Autism Speaks, we are investigating environmental links to autism as well as gene-environment interactions through our various grants and initiatives. In our environmental portfolio, we are currently supporting grants that examine the effects of environmental agents in animals, in which we look for some of the hallmarks of autism. Researchers in this area are studying animals with different genetic mutations and environmental exposures to the response of the immune system, the effectiveness of the body’s systems at clearing toxins and in changes in the expression of certain genes that occur as a result of the early environment. In addition we are also funding an expansion of epidemiology and brain development projects, including the Early Autism Risk Longitudinal Investigation (EARLI) and the Infant Brain Imaging Study (IBIS) to learn about gene-environment interactions that may affect the developing fetus. In the next weeks, we’ll be posting several pieces about gene-environment interactions to educate our community on these important interactions and inform you of the latest autism research in this area.