The National Institutes of Health, recognizing UCLA's preeminence in both research and clinical care for children with autism, has announced multiple awards to the university as part of the agency's Autism Centers of Excellence (ACE) research program.
The UCLA Center for Autism Research and Treatment (CART) was the only NIH ACE Center in the nation to be awarded renewed funding for the next five years. The funding will support ongoing research focused on examining genes' link to behavior, developing clinical interventions for those severely affected by the disorder, and explaining why autism affects more boys than girls.
The goal of this work is to understand the full range of autism spectrum disorders, the brain condition that causes a continuum of social deficits, communication difficulties and cognitive delays.
Genes and behavior
UCLA's CART will receive $10 million for research aimed at advancing treatments, understanding the disorder's genetics and biology, and improving diagnostics. New research will link genetic mutations to distinct patterns of brain development, structure and function in children and adolescents with autism spectrum disorders. This research effort is led by Susan Bookheimer, the Joaquin Fuster Professor of Cognitive Neurosciences at the Semel Institute for Neuroscience and Human Behavior at UCLA.
CART is unique in its breadth of expertise, which spans treatment, research, genetics, brain imaging and early-detection methods.
"We are very pleased to receive this additional funding to continue our investigation into the relationship between aberrant brain development and core deficits in autism," Bookheimer said. "With this award, we will now begin to track children, from infants to adolescents, who have multiple risks for autism and follow them over time in order to understand the trajectory of this disorder."
Autism in boys and girls
Bookheimer and CART director Dr. Daniel Geschwind are also leading a team of CART researchers at UCLA, along with colleagues from Harvard University and the University of Washington, on a new ACE Network grant awarded to Yale University. This joint effort seeks to understand why autism spectrum disorders are almost five times more common among boys (one in 54) than girls (one in 252), with the goal of identifying the causes of the disorders and developing new treatments. The team will study a larger sample of girls with autism than has ever been studied previously, focusing on genes, brain function and behavior throughout childhood and adolescence.
CART member Connie Kasari, a professor of education at the UCLA Graduate School of Education & Information Studies, a professor of psychiatry at UCLA's Semel Institute and a leader in the development of cutting-edge treatments for autism spectrum disorders, has received a $13.2 million ACE Network grant from the NIH for research comparing two types of intensive daily instruction aimed at helping children with autism spectrum disorders who use only minimal verbal communication.
Research has shown that even after early language-skills training, about one-third of school-aged children with autism spectrum disorders remain minimally verbal. Kasari's research network will enroll 200 children from schools in underserved communities in four cities — Los Angeles, Nashville, New York and Rochester, N.Y.
"We are grateful for this award because it will not only allow us to compare two different forms of interventions designed to improve communication, but will also involve parental interactions to enhance treatment," Kasari said. "Because parents play such a critical role in their children's development, the hope is that the combined efforts of the clinician and the parent will result in better social outcomes for the child."
"We are very pleased with both the ACE Center renewal award, as well as the other ACE awards to our CART research team," said Geschwind, a professor neurology and psychiatry who holds UCLA's Gordon and Virginia MacDonald Distinguished Chair in Human Genetics.
Geschwind also holds an ACE Network grant to study the genetic underpinnings of language and social communication in children with autism spectrum disorders.
"Our ACE Center was the only existing one in the country to receive renewed funding — this is a testament to CART's research and clinical expertise, which enables us to continue in this tough economic environment," he said. "We clearly have the optimal combination of world-leading researchers and a collaborative environment that permits us to continue to perform the most innovative, multidisciplinary research in autism and related disorders in the country."
In addition to Bookheimer, Geschwind and Kasari, the other CART members on the ACE Center grant include Dr. James McCracken, UCLA's Campbell Professor of Child Psychiatry and director of the division of child and adolescent psychiatry; Mirella Dapretto, professor of psychiatry; and Scott Johnson, professor of psychology.
The UCLA Center for Autism Research and Treatment (CART) conducts research and clinical trials and provides diagnoses, family counseling and treatment for individuals with autism spectrum disorders. CART was established in 2003 as one of eight centers in the National Institutes of Health–funded Studies to Advance Autism Research and Treatment network (STAART). In 2007, UCLA became one of six centers, and one of five networks, in the ACE research program funded by the NIH. For more information, visit www.autism.ucla.edu.
CART is part of the Semel Institute for Neuroscience and Human Behavior at UCLA, an interdisciplinary research and education institute devoted to the understanding of complex human behavior, including the genetic, biological, behavioral and sociocultural underpinnings of normal behavior and the causes and consequences of neuropsychiatric disorders. In addition to conducting fundamental research, faculty at the institute seek to develop effective strategies for the prevention and treatment of neurological, psychiatric and behavioral disorders, including improvement in access to mental health services and the shaping of national health policy.