Six groups nationwide receive federal grants
By Cheryl Clark
A pioneering autism researcher at UCSD and several scientific colleagues will receive about $11 million in federal funds over the next five years to create a major research effort to find a root cause of the disorder, the university announced yesterday.
Autism is a heartbreaking condition in which children slowly sink into isolation, sometimes with repetitive and anti-social behaviors. Autistic youths have difficulty communicating, following conversations or understanding various concepts. Emotional outbursts may occur without provocation.
The incidence of autism has been rising, from about four or five cases per 10,000 infants in the 1980s to 67 per 10,000 today.
The increase in cases is a mystery, although some researchers believe children formerly termed mentally retarded, or who were said to have a range of other developmental disorders, are now being diagnosed as having “autism spectrum disorder.” The spectrum includes Asperger’s syndrome, Fragile X and Rett syndrome.
Others think a combination of genetics and environmental factors is to blame.
Some family members have postulated that mercury in certain vaccines may trigger the condition, although researchers have discounted that theory.
Money from the National Institutes of Health will help launch a designated Autism Center of Excellence, which will join with other five other centers across the country to explore autism’s cause. The focus in San Diego will be on early development of autistic children, as well as the genetic footprint of the disorder’s earliest stage.
During their routine 12-month, “well baby” checkup, about 15,000 infants – who seem to be developing normally – will be screened for the program by about 100 participating pediatricians around the county.
In this portion of the study, designed by Karen Pierce of the University of California San Diego’s Department of Neurosciences, parents will be asked to answer an extensive questionnaire. The form asks whether the children are developing normally, or whether they seem distanced, have poor eye contact, don’t laugh, have low response to their parents’ voices, poor language skills – some telltale signs in autism.
These symptoms can begin in subtle ways long before the child deteriorates enough to be diagnosed and even before the family suspects autism. Autism is not usually diagnosed until age 2 or 3.
If a significant number of the answers are yes, the children will undergo testing for physiological or neural abnormalities, including DNA sequences that might be linked to autism. About 70 of the 15,000 children are expected to eventually be diagnosed with autism, according to statistics, and will be followed for several years.
“No one has ever attempted to do this before,” said Eric Courchesne, a UCSD neurosciences professor. Several years ago he discovered that children with autism have brains that grow as large as 1.5 times those of normal children by age 1.
“Such abnormal brain growth very likely triggers autistic behavior in infants and toddlers,” he said.
UCSD’s work also will try to determine whether autistic children in families with no other autistic children have a different type of the disorder from children in families with at least one other autistic child.
The San Diego team consists of researchers from UCSD, Rady Children’s Hospital in Kearny Mesa and the Salk Institute for Biological Studies in La Jolla.
The NIH is awarding grants to six teams of scientists nationwide, including Courchesne’s, in an effort to intensify research into the causes of autism.
Besides the San Diego team, other grants were awarded to the University of Illinois, the University of Washington, the University of Pittsburgh, the University of North Carolina and UCLA.
The Autism Center of Excellence will not be a specific building, but will be a program that many institutions around the county contribute to, said Courchesne, who will be the center’s director. The effort will begin this fall.