NEWS | September 29, 2011

UC Davis MIND Institute MARBLES Study receives $10 million NIH grant

Grant extends landmark study of environmental causes and biological markers of autism

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UC Davis researchers have received a five-year, $10 million grant from the National Institutes of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS) to expand a landmark study assessing the role of environmental and genetic risk factors in the development of autism among young children.

The grant extends and expands the Markers of Autism Risk in Babies -- Learning Early Signs, or MARBLES Study, led by Irva Hertz-Picciotto, professor and an epidemiologist affiliated with UC Davis MIND Institute, and chief of environmental and occupational health in the UC Davis Department of Public Health Sciences.

Irva Hertz-Picciotto © UC Regents
Irva Hertz-Picciotto

MARBLES is the first prospective study of the causes and early markers of autism during pregnancy. It is a longitudinal study of pregnant women who already have a biological child with an autism spectrum disorder. Started in 2006, it has enrolled over 200 pregnant mothers, many of whom already have given birth to an infant who will be followed carefully to monitor environmental exposures and to assess early signs of autism or other developmental problems.

"This grant will allow us to continue and expand the MARBLES Study for five more years and enroll at least 200 additional participants," Hertz-Picciotto said "We now will include measurements of two chemical classes, flame retardants and pesticides, to see whether they are predictive of children's eventual diagnoses."
MARBLES examines a wide array of exposures to examine whether they play a role in a child's eventual diagnosis with autism, including common household products, viral or other illnesses, pesticides, nutrition, medications and environmental contaminants toxic to the immune and nervous systems.

The study also looks at lifestyle factors, immune system functioning, the mothers' metabolism and behavioral factors, to assess which of these factors might play a role in a child's development of autism, a pervasive developmental disorder marked by poor verbal and communication skills, repetitive behaviors and an inability to form social connections.

MARBLES participants are required to have at least one child with autism, since such women, if they become pregnant, are at least 10 times more likely to have another child with the disorder. They undergo a series of intensive evaluations during pregnancy, birth and nursing. After a mother gives birth, her new child's development is carefully monitored until age 3.

"By addressing both the need to understand risk or protective factors for autism spectrum disorders, beginning during gestation and the need to elucidate underlying mechanisms, MARBLES has the ability to move the field of autism forward toward a more multifactorial and mechanistically driven research agenda," Hertz-Picciotto said.

Hertz-Picciotto's collaborators for the MARBLES Study include Sally Ozonoff, professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences; Isaac Pessah, professor and chair, Department of Molecular Biosciences, School of Veterinary Medicine and director, UC Davis Children's Center for Environmental Health and
Disease Prevention.

Additional funding for the MARBLES Study comes from the UC Davis School of Medicine; the UC Davis Clinical and Translational Science Center; and the UC Davis MIND Institute.

At the UC Davis MIND Institute, world-renowned scientists engage in research to find improved treatments as well as the causes and cures for autism, attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder, fragile X syndrome, Tourette syndrome and other neurodevelopmental disorders. Advances in neuroscience, molecular biology, genetics, pharmacology and behavioral sciences are making inroads into a better understanding of brain function. The UC Davis MIND Institute draws from these and other disciplines to conduct collaborative, multidisciplinary research. For more information, visit