NEWS | January 6, 2012

Two MIND Institute studies recognized by the NIEHS


The National Institutes of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS) has named two autism investigations led by UC Davis MIND Institute researchers to its top 10 extramurally funded studies of 2011.

The studies include research led by Cecilia Giulivi, professor of molecular bioscience in the UC Davis School of Veterinary Medicine, which found that children with autism exhibit dysfunction in their mitochondrial DNA, and a study led by Rebecca J. Schmidt, assistant professor in the Department of Public Health Sciences, which found that women who take prenatal vitamins early are less likely to have a child with autism.

Giulivi's study was published in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA). It found that cumulative damage and oxidative stress in mitochondria, the cell's energy producer, could influence both the onset and severity of autism, suggesting a strong link between autism and mitochondrial defects.

The study examined a small sample of children enrolled in the Childhood Risk of Autism from Genetics and the Environment (CHARGE) Study, and found that mitochondria from children with autism consumed far less oxygen than mitochondria from a group of control children, a sign of lowered mitochondrial activity. The finding suggests that deficiencies in the ability to fuel brain neurons might lead to some of the cognitive impairments associated with autism.

"It is always an honor to contribute to the advancement of science," Giulivi said of the recognition. "However, it does not surprise me, given the exceptional group of scientists who worked on the project, the generous participation of the families of the CHARGE Study and the resources at the MIND Institute and UC Davis in general."

The other authors of the Giulivi study are Yi-Fan Zhang, Alicja Omanska-Klusek, Catherine Ross-Inta, Sarah Wong, Irva Hertz-Picciotto and Flora Tassone, all of UC Davis. The study also received funding from a MIND Institute Pilot Research Grant.

The study by Rebecca Schmidt and her colleagues, published in the journal EPIDEMIOLOGY, also was named one of the top 10 research advances of 2011 by Autism Speaks, the nation's leading autism advocacy organization.

It 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 with an autism spectrum disorder as women who did take the supplements. The associated risk rose to seven times as great when combined with a high-risk genetic make-up.

Schmidt and her collaborators postulate 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.

"We are honored to have our research recognized by the NIEHS, demonstrating the need for better understanding of modifiable environmental factors, like nutrition, that may hold promise for reducing risk for developmental disorders like autism," Schmidt said.

Other authors of the study include Robin Hansen, Linda Schmidt and Daniel Tancredi of UC Davis, and Jaana Hartiala and Hooman Allayee of UCLA. The study also was supported by a MIND Institute Pilot Research Grant.

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