Home > Science > NIEHS and Autism Speaks Partner to Find Answers

NIEHS and Autism Speaks Partner to Find Answers

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.

  1. Noreen Albright
    September 10, 2010 at 5:55 pm

    I find it interesting that they mention maternal flu. My child with Autism is the ONLY child that I received a flu shot with. I never felt healthy until a year after that shot. It also caused night itching that was unbearable. When answering questions for research, I often mention that I wish I never received that shot. My first son was born 10 years before and they didn’t PUSH the flu shot. I would never get a flu shot again when pregnant. I personally felt it was a contributor and also the fact that when they gave my child his flu shot he swelled up with inflammation throughout his legs/groin area. He was breastfed, was probably exposed to this flu shot through the placenta and then received 2 flu shots. Could over vaccination and over exposure be an immune problem? I think so.

  2. Katie Wright
    September 13, 2010 at 1:57 pm

    When will this meeting be available for parents, family members and other Autism Speaks stakeholders and sponsors to view?

    It was tremendously disappointing that the website and AS choose not to allow families the opportunity to tune into the meeting because none of us knew it was happening!

    Why was their no notice of this conference on the website? Autism Speaks science needs to start treating parents as real partners. Telling us about the meeting after the fact isn’t sufficient. I would like to see the conference for myself and make up my own mind. This topic is very important to me and my child.

    EVEN IACC gives the public a few weeks notice before meetings AND IACC allows a chance for the public to ask questions. Why isn’t AS just as willing to do the same? Parents are paying for this meeting. AS money is not coming out of some giant govt. account but from individual family members. The very least we have a right to expect is to be notified in the event we would like to watch the webcast.

    Yes there were a few handpicked parents in attendance but it is inappropriate and counter to the spirit of AS that AS scientists should be allowed to inform some parents of this meeting but not others.

    Noreen, I agree with you. Although I barely was able to watch much of the meeting, on the agenda it was clear that the organizers were frightened to address vaccines directly. We cannot be fearful in science, everything must be on the table. Discussion of this obvious environmental trigger should have been on the agenda. My son had an horrific adverse vaccine reaction to 7 vaccines at once. That is an important environmental trigger to 100,000s+ of families! How could environmental factors such as adverse vaccine reactions/ regression fail to be on the agenda yet the genome was?

    Please let us know where we can view this meeting.

  3. Katie Wright
    September 13, 2010 at 9:00 pm

    We do not want a “summary report.” The public deserves access to the meeting period, not your interpretation.

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