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.
This post is by Leanne Chukoskie, Ph.D. Dr. Chukoskie is the Asst. Director Science Communication and Special Projects at Autism Speaks and Asst. Project Scientist, Institute for Neural Computation, UCSD.
Having not previously interacted with the National Institutes of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS), I didn’t know what to expect. I must admit a tendency to equate the National Institutes of Health with the pinnacle of ivory tower research and a somewhat “stuffy” perspective on science. I could not have been more off base in describing the inaugural meeting of the Partners in Environmental Public Health (PEPH).
The initiative aims to bring together academia and community stakeholders as partners in improving environmental health, and this was clearly a charge that the leadership and participants took seriously (read a description of the meeting). The passion of the people participating in this meeting was palpable. Many of the community organizers and research partners in attendance have been seeking solutions for local environmental problems for years. Spontaneous applause and whoops from the audience erupted in response to community-empowering comments or discussion. This wasn’t your typical scientific conference! After each discussion session, the moderators had to actively intervene to end the questions and suggest that the conversation continue over the next break, lest we get horribly off our time schedule.
At the meeting my colleague, Alycia Halladay, and I conversed with other public health advocates about what we and other organizations are doing to disseminate research findings to members of the community. How were we learning what issues concern the community most? How do we use that information to address those concerns? How are we delivering scientific information about autism to the public and are they “getting it”? These other groups wanted to learn from us, and we from them.
We learned about an exceptional program that trained portreros (trusted communicators in the local Hispanic community) in various aspects of environmental science understanding using hands-on science demonstrations. The portreros then met with other members of their community to convey needed information about local environmental risks surrounding a superfund clean-up site. Could we develop the resources to train our team of volunteer Science Ambassadors at Autism Speaks similarly?
We also heard an important presentation from Michael Yudell, Ph.D., M.P.H. of Drexel University who spoke about communicating autism research findings to the public in a clear, direct and useful manner. Citing the history of how “blame” has been used by different ways and different groups to identify the causes of autism, Dr. Yudell offered recommendations for improving the dissemination of research based on a meeting organized at Drexel last year
It is in meetings like this is where the rubber meets the road. There are so many areas of opportunity for autism, which is one of NIEHS’ priority areas of investigation, including opportunities for organizations and other community advocates to partner with academia and apply for grants. Most importantly, however, this initiative enjoys ongoing support from the government.. We look forward to making the most of the opportunities offered and working with you, the autism community, to make the changes we need most.