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The Autism Centers of Excellence (
) Network

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v    University of Pittsburgh — Dr. Nancy Minshew
Researchers at the University of Pittsburgh
Center will study how people with ASD learn and understand information. Research shows that the ability to organize information into categories is critical to language development. The Pittsburgh researchers will use brain imaging techniques to study how infants at risk for autism and toddlers diagnosed with the disorder pl
information into categories. Researchers will also use brain imaging techniques to study which parts of the brain are activated in people with and without ASD when processing information and emotions.

v    University of California Los Angeles Dr. Marian Sigman
Researchers at the UCLA
Center will seek to understand how ASD affects the ability to communicate. The researchers will try to find clues to language-related communications problems by looking at genes, behavior and brain structure and functioning. The researchers also are interested in disorders that affect the mirror neurons. Mirror neurons are brain cells that become active either when a person performs an action or watches the action performed by someone else. When many patients with ASD are asked to imitate behaviors, images of their brains show that their mirror neurons are less active than those of other people. The researchers will try to stimulate the mirror neurons of people with ASD by having them follow a set of instructions to complete a task.

v     University of Illinois — Dr. Edwin Cooke
Researchers at the University of Illinois at Chicago
Center will focus on understanding the repetitive behavior seen in ASD. Known as “insistence on sameness,” this behavior is a hallmark of ASD. Examples of insistence on sameness include wanting to wear the same clothes every day, taking the same route to work or school, or becoming fixated on certain subject matter, such as buildings or cars. Center researchers will focus on genetic factors as well as brain chemicals and brain functions that could account for repetitive behaviors in people with ASD, and test whether genetic differences influence how individuals respond to certain medications intended to reduce the occurrence of these behaviors.

v     University of California San Diego — Dr. Eric Courchesne
Researchers at the UCSD
Center also will use brain imaging to track brain development in children believed to be at risk for autism spectrum disorders. Unlike other
program projects, which will attempt to identify forerunners of ASD in the siblings of children with ASD, the UCSD researchers will study infants who have been referred by their physicians. The physicians will make the referrals on the basis of a checklist of behaviors that are similar to those of older children with ASD. The primary goal of this center is to identify brain or other physical differences that might predispose a child to autism. The UCSD Center will collect some of the first information ever obtained on how the brains of very young children with autism process and respond to information.

v     University of Washington — Dr. Wendy Stone
Researchers at the University of Washington
Center will seek to identify genes and other potential factors that may predispose an individual toward ASD, as well as factors that might protect against them. In addition to genes, the researchers will try to determine the risk of ASD by examining communication difficulties, early behaviors, patterns in the sounds babies make, and brain structure and activity patterns. Researchers will also try to determine whether certain types of interactions between the parent and baby can decrease the chances for ASD.

v     Yale University — Dr. Ami Klin
Researchers at Yale propose to study early social interactions and development and disruptions in these processes in children ages 12-24 months with ASD. The researchers also aim to identify rare genetic variants that may be involved in ASD in this same group of young children. Klin and colleagues will also use brain imaging tools to study the structure and functioning of connections in the brains of an additional group of 10-year-old children with ASD who have been followed since age 24 months in previous research studies. Together, these projects will build upon existing research on the behavioral, brain and molecular aspects of ASD, and may lead to new discoveries on the causes and best treatments for ASD.

v     University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill — Dr. Joseph Piven
The 2007
program Network award lead recipient. In  hopes of identifying brain differences in children who develop ASD, researchers at this Network of sites operating under the direction of the University of North Carolina will use brain imaging techniques to compile images of the brains of very young infants. Some of these children may go on to develop ASD. Their brain images will be compared to those of other infants, to identify differences between children who develop autism and those who do not. While previous studies have documented the enlarged brains often seen in ASD patients, little is known about the abnormal processes during early brain development in children with ASD. The research could offer new insights that lead to earlier diagnosis of ASD.

v     Wayne State University — Dr. Diane Chugani
Researchers at this Network of sites will study the effects of using buspirone (Buspar) in promoting more normal growth and development of the brains of children with autism. Autistic children tend to have abnormal levels of the neurotransmitter serotonin during important periods of development. Buspirone helps stimulate serotonin production and was shown in a pilot study by the Wayne State researchers to improve social interaction and reduce repetitive behavior and sensory dysfunction and anxiety in children with autism. Findings from these studies could provide an evidence base for a new medication treatment for autism.

v    Drexel University  — Dr. Craig Newschaffer
Researchers at this Network of sites (including Children's Hospital of Philadelphia, Johns Hopkins University, University of California Davis and Kaiser Permanente Division of Research) will study possible risk factors and biological indicators for ASD during the prenatal, neonatal and early postnatal periods. The researchers aim to follow 1,200 mothers of children with autism at the start of a new pregnancy and document the development of their newborn siblings through age three. This study, to be known ad the Early Autism Risk Longitudinal Investigation (EARLI), will provide a unique opportunity for studying possible autism environmental risk factors and biomarkers during different developmental windows as well as an opportunity to investigate the interplay of genetic susceptibility and environmental exposure. A number of environmental exposures, ranging from suspected neurotoxicants like persistent organic pollutants to medications taken during pregnancy could potentially be investigated with data and samples collected in EARLI.   The study will also add considerably to current knowledge of the natural history and progression of ASD.

v    University of California, Davis  — Dr. Sally Rogers
To address the need for controlled studies of treatments for autism in very young children, researchers at this Network of sites operating under the direction of UC Davis will compare an intensive behavioral intervention to standard community-based treatment in 18-24 month old children with autism. This work builds on previous research by Rogers and colleagues, which in early studies, suggests that the intensive early treatment provides better outcomes than standard community-based treatment. This new research will examine factors that can inform efforts to provide the best treatment outcomes for very young children with autism.

National Institutes of Health Autism Research Network.


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2006 CeFAR at the University of Pittsburgh • Site last updated November, 2008