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News from UC Davis Health System

NEWS | December 20, 2011

UC Davis MIND Institute autism studies among the world's best in 2011

Autism Speaks recognizes three MIND Institute investigations for research excellence

(SACRAMENTO, Calif.)

Three UC Davis MIND Institute research studies are among the Top 10 Research Achievements of 2011 identified by the world's largest autism science and advocacy organization.

Autism Speaks recognized the MIND Institute for its autism investigations in a broad range of fields of inquiry, including epidemiology, medical microbiology and immunology, and the rate of reoccurrence of the condition among siblings.

Professor of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences Sally Ozonoff's autism research is among the best in the world in 2011. © UC Regents
Professor of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences Sally Ozonoff's autism research is among the best in the world in 2011.

The organization announced the Autism Speaks Top 10 Autism Research Achievements of 2011 on its website.

"This recognition reflects the breadth, depth and strength of the transformational research conducted at the UC Davis MIND Institute," said Claire Pomeroy, vice chancellor for human health sciences and dean of the School of Medicine at UC Davis. "The MIND Institute's investigations are creating new insights that today are changing the lives of people with autism and their families in the United States and around the world."

The three studies include research led by Paul Ashwood, assistant professor in the Department of Medical Microbiology and Immunology, titled "Elevated plasma cytokines in autism spectrum disorders provide evidence of immune dysfunction and are associated with impaired behavioral outcome." It was published in January 2011 in the journal Brain, Behavior and Immunity.

The research found significantly altered adaptive cellular immune function in children with autism spectrum disorders that may reflect dysfunctional immune activation, and that these alterations may be linked to disturbances in behavior and developmental functioning. Other UC Davis study authors include Paula Krakowiak, Irva Hertz-Picciotto, Robin Hansen, Isaac Pessah, and Judy Van de Water.

Autism Speaks acknowledged an epidemiological study on "Prenatal vitamins, functional one-carbon metabolism gene variants, and risk for autism in the CHARGE Study," which was published online in May 2011 and in print in July in the journal Epidemiology.

The study found that women who reported not taking a daily prenatal vitamin immediately before and during the first month of pregnancy were nearly twice as likely to have a child later diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder as women who did take the supplements. The risk rose to seven times as great when combined with a high-risk genetic make-up.

The study's lead author is Rebecca J. Schmidt, assistant professor in the Department of Public Health Sciences. The senior author is Irva Hertz-Picciotto, professor and chief of the Division of Environmental and Occupational Health in the Department of Public Health Sciences. Schmidt, Hertz-Picciotto and their colleagues postulate in the study that folic acid, the synthetic form of folate or vitamin B9, and the other B vitamins in prenatal supplements likely protect against deficits in early fetal brain development. Folate is known to be critical to neurodevelopment and earlier studies have found that supplemental folic acid has the potential to prevent up to 70 percent of neural tube defects. The other authors of the study include UC Davis' Robin Hansen, Linda Schmidt and Daniel Tancredi and UCLA's Jaana Hartiala and Hooman Allayee.

"It is an honor to be recognized for our work by Autism Speaks, an organization well-known for promoting autism research at the cutting edge," Schmidt said. "We hope this recognition of research investigating maternal nutritional factors as they interact with genetic susceptibility in relation to autism may spur further pursuit of modifiable exposures that can be targeted for prevention of this disorder."

The third study Autism Speaks acknowledged is research led by Sally Ozonoff, vice chair for research at the UC Davis MIND Institute and a professor in the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences.

Ozonoff's study, "Recurrence risk for autism spectrum disorders: A Baby Siblings Research Consortium study," was published in the journal Pediatrics in August 2011. The study found that the risk that an infant with an older sibling with autism also will develop the disorder, previously estimated at between 3 and 10 percent, is substantially higher at approximately 19 percent.

While Ozonoff and her colleagues found a combined estimated risk for all participants of nearly 19 percent, the study found an even more elevated risk of recurrence of over 26 percent for male infants, and over 32 percent for infants with more than one older sibling with autism.

Study participants were enrolled in separate studies that are part of the Baby Siblings Research Consortium, an international network that is supported by Autism Speaks that pools data from individually funded research sites to facilitate the study of infants at high risk of developing autism because they have an older sibling with the condition.

"It is a great honor to have our work selected as one of Autism Speaks' Top 10 papers of the year," Ozonoff said. "These findings would not have been possible without the teamwork of scientists at 12 universities who collaborated on the project, the support of the Baby Siblings Research Consortium, and especially the selfless devotion of the hundreds of families to autism science."

The other authors of the autism recurrence study include Gregory Young and Sally Rogers of the UC Davis MIND Institute; Alice Carter of the University of Massachusetts, Boston; Daniel Messinger of the University of Miami; Nurit Yirmiya of the University of Jerusalem; Lonnie Zwaigenbaum of the University of Alberta, Canada; Susan Bryson of Dalhousie University, Halifax, Nova Scotia; Leslie J. Carver  and Karen Dobkins of UC San Diego; John Constantino of Washington University, St. Louis; Ted Hutman and Marian Sigman of UCLA; Jana M. Iverson of the University of Pittsburgh; Rebecca Landa of Kennedy Krieger Institute; and Wendy L. Stone of the University of Washington, Seattle.

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 mindinstitute.ucdavis.edu.