ASF Funds Four New ‘Baby Siblings Research Consortium’ Grants

Published July 28, 2021

New grants will support BSRC’s efforts to understand the developmental origins and earliest signs of Autism Spectrum Disorder

New York, July 28, 2021 — The Autism Science Foundation (ASF), a not-for-profit organization dedicated to supporting and funding innovative autism research, today announced its 2021 Baby Siblings Research Consortium (BSRC) database grant recipients. The grantees are Dr. Greg Young of University of California Davis, Dr. Rujuta Bhatt Wilson of the University of California, Los Angeles, Dr. Jessica Girault of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and Dr. Heather Volk of Johns Hopkins University.

The BSRC is a collaboration of more than 50 researchers and clinicians all committed to searching for the very earliest signs of autism in infants with a high probability of a diagnosis, including those with an older sibling on the spectrum. These new grants represent distinct opportunities for BSRC members to contribute to and address specific scientific questions made possible through the common BSRC database established by these investigators in 2009. ASF has provided logistical and financial support to the BSRC since 2017.

The BSRC database has supported multiple consortium-wide findings over the years, including the initial discovery of a 15x greater chance of probability in younger siblings, changes in early motor function, the broader autism phenotype, sex differences, stability of diagnoses past age 3 and biological-based markers like head circumference and genetic difference. The new grantees are expected to add more than 10,000 new datapoints through their studies.

“These new studies, which will examine fine motor skills, genetics and other familial factors, all track the same infants from birth to diagnosis, offering a unique opportunity to understand how behaviors develop over time,” said ASF Chief Science Officer Dr. Alycia Halladay. “The data these researchers collect will be used to address key questions to help improve diagnoses in infants and toddlers while also enhancing a resource that has provided important research information for over a decade.”

“ASF is proud to continue funding research conducted by members of the BSRC,” said ASF Co-Founder and President Alison Singer. “Their promising work continues to be a key to understanding the root causes of autism and identifying the best early intervention options, which will ultimately help people with autism live richer and more fulfilling lives.”

The following projects have received funding:

Principal Investigator:  Rujuta Bhatt Wilson, Ph.D.
University of California, Los Angeles
Title:  Linking Early Fine Motor Skills to the Development of Language in Infants
Motor development is one of the earliest features and benchmarks of developmental progress and is crucial in driving multiple cognitive and social processes as babies grow older. However, little is known about the relationship between very early fine motor skills and gestures in infancy, even though they are highly associated with each other and important early markers of an ASD diagnosis. Doing so may require sophisticated analytic techniques and more detailed data collected in this early time frame. This study will allow for the inclusion and analysis of item-level scores on the Mullen, a developmental measure that includes testing of motor function. This data will be paired with data on gestures at 12 months and language at 24 months to map the link between motor abilities and communication abilities later in life in those with a family history of ASD as well as those with no family history. The results of the study may inform important avenues for early intervention to improve social communication. 

Principal Investigator:  Jessica Girault, Ph.D.
University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
Title:  Familial Factors that Drive Behavioral Development in ASD
Work of the BSRC has shown that symptom and behavioral profiles of older siblings with ASD may inform outcomes in younger siblings. This project will use family data—rather than just data from the sibling—to study how behaviors in older siblings with ASD predict the likelihood of a diagnosis, as well as how they inform patterns of behavioral development in their younger siblings during infancy and toddlerhood.  BSRC members will utilize item-level, not just overall scores, from standardized behavioral instruments from the family member with the diagnosis. Usually, this level of data is collected on the individual with autism, or the younger sibling, but not both. The results will have implications for screening and monitoring in early life by identifying cost-effective markers of diagnostic probability that can be easily obtained from families. Early identification paves the way for early intervention, which has the greatest potential to improve long-term adaptive outcomes for children and their families.

Principal Investigator:  Heather Volk, Ph.D
Johns Hopkins University
Title:  Linking Genetics to Behavior in Infant Siblings
Autism Spectrum Disorders have been shown to be highly heritable, including both common genetic variants and rare genetic variants, with common genetic variation being represented by a number called a “polygenic risk score,” or PRS.  Understanding the genetic influences of ASD can lead to better detection as well as open the doors to discovery of other heritable factors involved in ASD. This project will generate polygenic risk scores for families in the BSRC and link that data to both behavioral data at multiple time points from the child with ASD and the sibling. This data will help better characterize the biological background of families in the BSRC (including those with no family history) and will help better understand subtypes that will be meaningful for clinical interventions. 

Principal Investigator:  Gregory Young, Ph.D.
Title:  BSRC Database Oversight and Management
Dr. Young will ensure that the BSRC Database is structured to accept all new data types, assist with incorporation of new data, and maintain the database for use across all BSRC members.

About the Autism Science Foundation
The Autism Science Foundation (ASF) 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.

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