BU to Establish Autism Center of Excellence
$10 million NIH grant drives collaborative effort| From BU Today | By Susan Seligson
Helen Tager-Flusberg, who has studied autism for 30 years, will head BU’s new Autism Center of Excellence. Photo by Kalman Zabarsky
The National Institutes of Health announced on September 4 an award of $10 million to establish an Autism Center of Excellence (ACE) at Boston University. The five-year grant will fund research devoted to the least probed aspects of the increasingly common disorder, which remains baffling for scientists and parents hoping for guidance in helping children with a broad range of social and learning deficits.
According to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, one in 88 children has been identified with autism spectrum disorder (ASD), up from an estimated one in 155 a decade ago. ASD involves social impairment, unusual repetitive behaviors, and difficulty communicating. But the most mystifying of these is an inability to acquire spoken language, which affects about 30 percent of the autism population. With the NIH funds, the BU center, which will marshal researchers from several fields to study autism and language, is the first federally designated center in the nation established to address the critical needs of this largely neglected end of the autism spectrum.
“There has been almost no research on this group of children and adults, and we have designed several key projects to address this gap in our knowledge,” says Helen Tager-Flusberg, a College of Arts & Sciences professor of psychology and director of the new center. One of the major projects will be a study of a promising new intervention called auditory motor mapping training, or AMMT, an innovative behavioral intervention that combines the use of singing and motor activities to strengthen parts of the brain that appear abnormal in children with autism.
“Obtaining this funding means that we’ll really be able to bring together everyone involved on these projects,” says Tager-Flusberg, who has studied language acquisition and autism for three decades and is president of the International Society for Autism Research. She calls this development “the most exciting moment” in her career, with funding that will enable her and fellow scientists to embrace new tools, in neuroscience and other fields, to answer these “really important questions.”
“It is very exciting that Professor Tager-Flusberg and her colleagues were able to attract the support from the National Institutes of Health to establish this very important center at Boston University,” says Virgina Sapiro, dean of Arts and Sciences. “This center will build on the scientific expertise and commitment already present at BU and allow them to make major inroads in understanding the critical and expanding problem of autism as well as human cognition more generally.”
The BU ACE brings together leading neuroscientists from the University in collaboration with colleagues from Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center (BIDC), Massachusetts General Hospital, Harvard Medical School, Northeastern University, and Albert Einstein College of Medicine. In addition to Tager-Flusberg, the principal investigators for ACE’s major projects are Barbara Shinn-Cunningham, a College of Engineering professor of biomedical engineering and director of the BU Auditory Neuroscience Laboratory, and Frank Guenther, a Sargent College professor of speech, language, and hearing sciences and biomedical engineering director of the BU Speech Lab and the BU Neural Prosthesis Lab.
According to Tager-Flusberg, the research will focus on the development of novel methods for assessing this group of people with autism using innovative technologies, as well as brain and behavioral studies aimed at identifying the reasons why many children with autism fail to acquire spoken language. And the grant will enable researchers to evaluate AMMT, an outgrowth of something called melodic intonation therapy, which has proven effective in helping stroke patients with aphasia recover their ability to speak, according to Gottfried Schlaug, a Harvard Medical School associate professor of neurology and director of the BIDMC Music and Neuroimaging Laboratory.
In preliminary clinical trials, AMMT has shown great promise in promoting speech in children with ASD. After eight weeks of AMMT treatment (five days per week), the six children in the BIDMC pilot study—who ranged in age from six to nine and were previously completely nonverbal—were able to approximate whole words and phrases, with improvements seen as early as two weeks into therapy.
Other investigations will involve the use of magnetic resonance imaging as well as electrophysiology and the efforts of SAR and ENG scientists, says Tager-Flusberg. “Developing this set of projects involves so many different disciplines and scientists, and in the past I haven’t been able to do more than some pilot work,” she says. “Obtaining this funding means that we’ll really be able to bring everyone involved on these projects together to build some unified infrastructure.” Another component of the center is research training and education. “We’ll include all the students and postdocs involved in different projects,” Tager-Flusberg says, “and we intend to expand to include other students.”
For the estimated 30 percent of children on the autism spectrum who never acquire language skills, the center offers hope for those who “are very difficult to engage in standard testing,” says Tager-Flusberg. “What we need are new ways of reaching these children.” The collaborating researchers hope to develop tools that can eventually be used to predict whether therapy will be successful or not.
The Autism Centers of Excellence Program was established in 2007 by the National Institutes of Mental Health to intensify efforts to find the causes of autism and identify new treatments. The BU grant is one of nine NIH awards for 2012 that will support research at individual centers or at research networks, which involve multiple institutions dedicated to the study of ASD, including the University of California, Los Angeles, and Emory University.
The NIH institutes providing funding and expertise for the effort are the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders, the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, the National Institute of Mental Health, and the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke.