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American Reinvestment and Recovery Act funds stimulate neurodevelopmental research at the MIND Institute

UC Davis MIND Institute © UC Regents
Federal stimulus funding will be awarded to several UC Davis MIND Institute research projects, including the Autism Phenome Project, which will define the biological and behavioral distinctions for different types of autism.

Posted Jan. 27, 2010

In February 2009, the United States Congress passed the American Reinvestment and Recovery Act (ARRA) of 2009 as an economic stimulus package.

This act presented the National Institutes of Health (NIH) with a unique opportunity and a hefty problem.

The opportunity came in the form of a $10 billion supplement to the NIH budget to augment existing research, fuel new and innovative research projects that would improve the health of Americans, and create new job opportunities. The problem came with the mandate that the funds were to be expended within two years. This started a mad rush of grant announcements, writing, reviewing and finally funding. The review process of the NIH was taxed to its limit. One grant announcement, the NIH “Challenge Grant,” generated over 23,000 applications. But a heroic effort led to 100s of new grants being funded.

A special request for applications, entitled Research to Address the Heterogeneity in Autism Spectrum Disorders, was of particular interest to scientists involved in autism research.

Originally advertised with a budget of $60 million, NIH funding for this program is now projected at about $80 million.

UC Davis MIND Institute investigators were awarded nearly $5.1 million from this autism-specific funding opportunity, and a total of approximately $9 million from all NIH ARRA offerings.

These monies will enhance a wide array of MIND Institute research studies, including the Childhood Risks of Autism from Genetics and the Environment (CHARGE) Study, Autism Phenome Project (APP), Infant Sibling Project, and the Neurotherapeutics Research Institute (NTRI).

Dr. Paul Hagerman © UC Regents“This is a wonderful opportunity. These grants will infuse money into the local economy in personnel and supplies — and all of this new investment supports scientific advancement.”
— Paul Hagerman

Not only will these awards facilitate new and ongoing research at the MIND Institute, but, consistent with the goals of the ARRA, they will also support the hiring of many new personnel with various levels of technical and scientific experience.

Autism Phenome Project

A team consisting of MIND Institute Research Director David Amaral, developmental psychologist Sally Rogers and immunologist Judy Van de Water received a nearly $3 million award in support of the Autism Phenome Project (APP). The Autism Phenome Project is one of the largest and most comprehensive assessments of children with autism nationwide. The project has evaluated over 200 families thus far, two thirds of them with a child with autism, and a third with a typically developing child. The goal of the project is to define different subtypes of autism in order to more systematically study causes and develop more effective targeted treatments.

Participants receive a wide array of tests, including extensive behavioral and physical examinations, magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), blood sampling and immunological examinations. The new funding will allow the APP team to increase the number of families evaluated to over 400.

Dr. Sally Rogers © UC Regents
Funding for Sally Rogers' research will support the development of early interventions for very young children with autism.

Amaral said that the study already has begun to find clues to autism’s origins.

“Even with data from the first 200 families, we are seeing interesting differences among children with autism. Some kids, for example, have very large brains, and we’ve had some kids with very small brains. The children with small brains have different immune profiles than those with larger brains. We’ve also detected four types of brain responses to auditory stimuli using EEG or the recording of brain electrical activity. So, the unique, multidisciplinary approach that we are using in the APP is already beginning to identify possible biological signatures of subtypes of children with autism.”

Amaral said he is happy that the APP grant was funded through an initiative specifically for inquiries into the heterogeneity of autism — “exactly the goal of the Autism Phenome Project,” he said.

The CHARGE study

The CHARGE study, lead by epidemiologist Irva Hertz-Picciotto, received two awards totaling more than $1.6 million. Hertz-Picciotto is a professor of public health sciences, deputy director of the Children’s Center for Environmental Health at UC Davis and a MIND Institute researcher. CHARGE was launched in 2003 as a study of 2,000 children that is designed to better understand the causes and contributing factors for autism or developmental delay and, in particular, to uncover the interplay between genetics and the environment.

Participants include children with autism, children with developmen tal delay who do not have autism and typically developing children.

MIND Institute stimulus grants © UC Regents

The Infant Sibling Project

The Infant Sibling Project will receive just over $1 million to continue efforts by Sally Ozonoff and her team to uncover the earliest signs of autism and to prevent or mitigate the full onset of the condition and its severe disability.

In addition to the comprehensive behavioral evaluations currently being conducted, the new award will fund magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) of young children at risk for autism. MRI will be done on infants as young as 6 months of age to determine whether aspects of brain organization may be used to help predict which children will progress to autism.

The Challenge Grant

Paul Hagerman is the lead researcher on a $787,000 Challenge Grant (one of the roughly 200 funded out of 23,000 submitted) to use stem cell technology to examine the disease mechanisms in a neurodegenerative condition called fragile-X associated tremor/ataxia syndrome, or FXTAS, in research that could provide insights into a number of other disorders, like Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s diseases.

Hagerman is a professor in the Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Medicine and the director of the UC Davis Neurotherapeutics Research Institute (NTRI), which was established to discover highly integrated approaches to developing targeted therapeutics, including molecular interventions, for neurogenetic disorders.

“In this study we will take skin cells, or fibroblasts, from patients with FXTAS and individuals without it and induce these cells to become neurons that will develop the cellular features of FXTAS. We then will have in culture the cell type that has gone wrong in this disease,” Hagerman said. “This opens up a world of experiments.”

More MIND Institute research

Other researchers affiliated with the MIND Institute who are receiving stimulus funds include:

Dr. Frank Sharp with research assistant © UC Regents
Frank Sharp (left) will assess the links between genes and immune system changes in children with autism.

  • Kimberly McAllister, an associate professor of neurology at the Center for Neuroscience, received two grants totaling $1 million, one for research into the formation of synapses between neurons in the visual system and another for the study of maternal immune function and its role in autism.
  • Sally Rogers and Laurie Vismara, both in the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences, are receiving a $527,000 grant for studies that evaluate the effectiveness of autism-specific interventions for children between 6 and 11 months of age.
  • Peter Mundy, a professor of education and of psychiatry and behavioral sciences and director of educational research at the MIND Institute, received $411,600 to study the therapeutic applications of virtual reality technology and social skills training for high-functioning individuals with autism.
  • A team led by Frank Sharp, a professor in the Department of Neurology, that also includes Paul Ashwood, assistant professor of medical microbiology and immunology, and Judy Van de Water, professor of rheumatology, allergy and clinical immunology, received $535,500 to evaluate the interactions of genes and the immune system in mothers of children with autism.
  • Janine Lasalle, professor of medical microbiology and immunology, received approximately $101,000 to study genetic and environmental contributions to the causes of Rett syndrome.

Paul Hagerman summarized the excitement of many of the MIND Institute investigators. “This is a wonderful opportunity. These grants will infuse money into the local economy in personnel and supplies — and all of this new investment supports scientific advancement.”