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.
A large Norwegian study provides strong evidence that women who take prenatal vitamins containing folic acid, in the weeks before and after conception, reduce the risk that a future child will develop severe language delays—defined as speaking one word or less at age 3. The study, published Oct. 12 in the Journal of the American Medical Association, comes on the heels of a recent American study that found a significantly reduced risk of autism among children born to mothers who took prenatal vitamins before conceiving.
The senior author of the study was Ezra Susser, M.D., Dr.PH., professor of psychiatry and epidemiology at Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health and a member of Autism Speaks’ scientific advisory committee. The lead author was Christine Roth, M.Sc., Clin.Psy.D., of the Norwegian Institute of Public Health.
The investigators analyzed pregnancy questionnaires completed by nearly 109,000 pregnant women enrolled in the Norwegian Mother and Child Cohort Study. They compared the prevalence of severe language delay among 3-year-olds according to whether or not their mothers took supplements containing folic acid during the 4 weeks before and 8 weeks after conception. They found that a mother’s use of folic acid during this crucial period reduced her child’s risk of severe language delay from just under one percent (0.9%) to less than a half percent (0.4%). Unlike the United States, Norway does not require folic acid fortification of grain products.
For years, physicians have encouraged women to take prenatal vitamins with folic acid because its use during early pregnancy reduces the risk that a baby will be born with neural tube defects, another disorder of brain development, comments Dr. Susser. “It’s important not to make blanket recommendations based on this one study,” he adds. “At the same time, we’re seeing converging lines of evidence that the effect of folic acid deficiency may be a real clue to the underlying biology that leads to autism and related problems in language development.”