Autism Science Foundation Announces 2014 Research Enhancement Grant Recipients

Published November 19, 2014

Five projects to be funded

(November 19, 2014 — New York, NY)—Today, the Autism Science Foundation, a not-for-profit organization dedicated to funding autism research, announced the recipients of its second round of research enhancement mini grants. These grants are intended to enable researchers to expand the scope or increase the efficiency of existing grants, or to take advantage of changes or findings that have occurred in or around a research project that warrant more funding. Five projects were selected for funding.

"This funding mechanism is a unique opportunity for autism research. Instead of starting new research from scratch, it provides resources for ongoing studies to rapidly exploit new opportunities, build their sample size, add an additional outcome variable, or speed the pace of research,” said Autism Science Foundation Chief Science Officer Alycia Halladay. “This allows research to move more efficiently, providing faster answers for the community.”

The following projects were selected for enhancement grant funding:

Dara Chan, ScD, University of North Carolina
Understanding Adult Service Needs in the Community Using GIS Technology
Because the number of people diagnosed with autism is increasing, there is a significant need to understand and prepare for the resources needed by adults with ASD. Unfortunately, there is little scientific research in this area. The largest prospective study of people with autism through middle adulthood to date is being undertaken at the University of North Carolina. This study is looking at outcomes in middle adulthood of people with ASD and also examining the association between childhood functioning (autism severity, IQ, adaptive functioning) on these outcomes. The goal is to understand how these variables can predict quality of life, employment, friendships and residential settings. This additional funding will incorporate a technology called Geographic Information Systems, or GIS, into the study. By doing so, the results will more accurately identify the distance between home and services, and how they relate to areas of functioning. It will also provide information about what services are being utilized by whom, and where, so that data can be gathered to improve services for adults in both rural and urban settings.

Karen Chenausky, MS, CCC-SLP, Boston University
Markers of Early Speech Development in Children At-Risk for Autism
Children with autism often exhibit very subtle and very mild behaviors before full blown symptoms develop. One way to study these early signs and symptoms is to follow infants at high risk for an ASD diagnosis and carefully monitor their development in a number of domains. One of these is domains is speech. There can be very, very small differences in early vocalizations that persist to when babies can start forming vowels. The difference in the way infants with ASD pronounce vowels may not be able to be heard by the human ear, but it can be distinguished using other methods. Ms. Chenausky will take already collected data in a high risk infant development study and use this new funding to collaborate with experts in acoustics and speech to study very early differences in vowel production. While these early and specific changes in speech may not problematic on their own, without speech therapy, they may lead to larger speech and language deficits. Therefore, these findings may lead to a way to detect changes leading to earlier intervention and better outcomes for those at risk for ASD.

Jennifer Foss-Feig, PhD, Yale University
Novel Methods to Understand the Brain Connectivity in Autism
PI: James McPartland
One theory to explain the causes and symptoms of ASD is an imbalance between excitatory and inhibitory signals in the brain. Some brain cells may be too turned on, or not turned on enough. As a result, signals may not be relayed across the brain properly, including in areas associated with ASD, resulting in autism symptoms. This may explain some of the behavioral features of ASD, but this theory has not been demonstrated with data. Dr. Foss-Feig will engage participants on a number of behavioral tasks, and at the same time, non-invasively measure brain activity in real time to look at how different regions are connected. The new funding will be used to build on a study of this mechanism in schizophrenia and apply the methods to study autism. This will also allow the researchers to better understand the differences and similarities between autism and schizophrenia, so new treatment strategies, including pharmacologic therapies, can be tested.

Connor Kerns, PhD, Drexel University
Validation of an Instrument to Improve Measurement of Anxiety in Autism
Anxiety disorders are present in up to 80% of youth diagnosed with autism spectrum disorders, but the nature of anxiety in ASD is not well understood. The symptoms of anxiety may be difficult to separate from symptoms of autism. This is especially true of atypical fears and worries – which could be part of anxiety or autism or possibly both. An instrument designed and validated to differentiate and comprehensively assess symptoms of anxiety in ASD is needed. The ADIS is currently the ‘gold standard’ in assessing anxiety in children, but requires adaptation to differentiate and assess the full range of anxiety symptoms apparent in ASD. This study will provide resources to validate the Autism Spectrum Addendum (ASA) to the Anxiety Disorders Interview Schedule (ADIS). Clarifying the differential diagnosis of anxiety and ASD symptoms and assessment of atypical fears via a validated instrument has important implications for research and clinical practice – including proper treatment and intervention strategies for people with ASD and anxiety problems.

Leena Malik, Washington University in St. Louis
Studying Williams Syndrome to Better Characterize Early Social Behavior in ASD
PI: John Constantino
This project will expand an ongoing study led by Dr John Constantino, which is developing two ways to quantify social behavior in young children. Currently, typically developing children, children with autism and children at risk for autism are included. However, funding for this project will allow the researchers to collect data on individuals with Williams Syndrome (WS). In contrast to people with ASD, people with WS are intensely social, even from an early age. Interestingly, while their behaviors are different, they share certain genetic markers with some people with autism. Therefore, including this comparison group will not only improve the accuracy of the instruments, but also better characterize the contribution of these genes to social behavior.

The Autism Science Foundation is a 501(c)(3) public charity. Its mission is to support autism research by providing funding to scientists and organizations conducting autism research. ASF also provides information about autism to the general public and serves to increase awareness of autism spectrum disorders and the needs of individuals and families affected by autism. To learn more about the Autism Science Foundation or to make a donation visit www.autismsciencefoundation.org.

Contact Information:
Casey Gold
cgold@autismsciencefoundation.org

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