On September 8, the National Institute for Environmental Health Sciences and Autism Speaks organized a brain-storming meeting in North Carolina entitled “Autism and the Environment: New Ideas for Advancing the Science”. Researchers, scientists, and parent advocates from within and outside the field of autism were invited to participate. Over the course of the day, the group’s objective was to share novel ideas and unique perspectives in identifying and overcoming the primary obstacles to progress in the field of environmental health research in autism. From these discussions the group was charged with identifying the best opportunities for accelerating research aimed at understanding the role the environment plays in the risk for autism. What made this meeting unique from others is that autism researchers with expertise in the unique challenges of discoveries in this disorder were invited together with experienced, senior researchers in other disorders with known genetic and environmental risk factors. This included schizophrenia, Parkinson’s Disease, and breast cancer. For example, Dr. Caroline Tanner described the sequence of scientific discoveries that led to the conclusion that Parkinson’s Disease has both environmental and genetic causes, and how researchers are using this information to better understand how the two interact. Dr. Tanner commented that, like autism, Parkinson’s Disease is associated with gastrointestinal problems, noting that such problems often occur before the onset of the motor problems that are characteristics of this disorder. Other scientists pointed out how both epidemiological evidence and basic science discoveries have suggested that early immune system challenges, such as maternal influenza, can influence fetal brain development, resulting in an increased risk for schizophrenia. Another feature of the discussion was the broad, inclusive nature of environmental factors under consideration, as well as how basic science and epidemiology can work together in parallel, rather than sequentially, to identify and validate suspected environmental targets.
The meeting was broadcast live via webcast and a summary report will be shared with the public and the NIH Interagency Autism Coordinating Committee for further consideration and comment. Ultimately this report will offer guidance in setting priorities in future environmental research in autism. Some of the suggestions included taking advantage of a variety of existing epidemiological studies the use of newer technologies for data collection of personal environmental exposures – such as sensors that can be worn on the body that are currently under development. Existing epidemiology studies that may not currently include autism as an outcome may be able to be built upon by adding autism as an outcome and gathering additional information on exposures of particular interest In addition, representatives from the National Toxicology Program presented approaches using bioinformatics and high throughput technologies to quickly screen for a variety of environmental exposures of interest. Because autism is complex, the assay may not be simple, and the group stressed the importance of basic research in science to help inform the process. This includes high quality, well designed research in cell biology, neuroanatomy, neurophysiology and genetics. Genetic research will continue to be essential to better understand how individuals with certain genotypes may be vulnerable to specific environmental exposure and to provide clues into the biological systems that are affected in autism. The new findings in genetics with regards to copy number variations are going to be essential to identify biological pathways that may be affected by specific environmental exposures.
As autism is a disorder with multiple symptoms and multiple etiologies, both big and small ideas, short and long term projects were identified for further consideration. Please check the Autism Speaks website for updates on this meeting and plans to follow up on the ideas presented. More information about the agenda and the participants can be found here. We will post a link to the full meeting once it is available.