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50 Years of the Molecular Revolution: Ethics and Policy, September 29, daylong symposium, GSU Terrace Lounge

Week of 26 September 2003· Vol. VII, No. 5

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STAART program
$8.4M NIH grant creates Autism Research Center

By David J. Craig

Helen Tager-Flusberg, a MED professor of anatomy and neurobiology and a CAS psychology professor (right), and Susan Folstein, a Tufts psychiatry and genetics professor, are codirectors of the new BU Autism Research Center of Excellence. Photo by Vernon Doucette


Helen Tager-Flusberg, a MED professor of anatomy and neurobiology and a CAS psychology professor (right), and Susan Folstein, a Tufts psychiatry and genetics professor, are codirectors of the new BU Autism Research Center of Excellence. Photo by Vernon Doucette


Because autism is a broadly defined disorder, in the past scientists studying it have had much more difficulty pooling their knowledge than researchers who collaborate to fight better understood illnesses. But in recent years, researchers have reached a consensus on diagnosing autism, and as a result, federal support for interdisciplinary autism research projects has blossomed.

This year, Boston University received a five-year, $8.4 million grant from the National Institutes of Health to create the BU Autism Research Center of Excellence, which will participate in one of the largest autism research efforts ever undertaken. The BU center is a collaboration among the BU School of Medicine, Tufts/New England Medical Center, the Waisman Center at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, and Dartmouth Medical School, and is one of eight such multisite centers established recently as part of NIH’s Studies to Advance Autism Research and Treatment (STAART) program.

The center is directed by Helen Tager-Flusberg, a MED professor of anatomy and neurobiology and a CAS psychology professor, and Susan Folstein, a Tufts psychiatry and genetics professor. It brings together investigators in the neurosciences, psychiatry, pediatric neurology, developmental clinical psychology, psycholinguistics, and family studies and social policy to collaborate on basic and clinical research on autism and related developmental disorders.

“Until recently, researchers studying autism worked alone on their own little piece of a very large and complex puzzle,” says Tager-Flusberg, an expert on the social and language development of children with autism. “Now we’re beginning to connect the pieces and reach a deeper understanding about what kinds of treatments and preventions are possible. The establishment of a research center for autism could not have come at a better time. The rate of autism diagnoses is increasing significantly around the world, and no one is quite sure why.”

One piece at a time

A psychiatric disorder that affects about 2 out of 1,000 children, autism is characterized by poor language and social skills and a propensity for repetitive behavior. Early intervention programs that encourage autistic children to interact with their environment are believed to curb its long-term effects, but most autistic children still require special care throughout their lives.

BU has been a leader in research on the anatomical roots of autism for more than 20 years. For instance, three MED faculty members, Thomas Kemper, a professor of anatomy and neurobiology, pathology, and neurology, Margaret Bauman, an adjunct associate professor of anatomy and neurobiology, and Gene Blatt, an assistant professor of anatomy and neurobiology, have identified specific regions of the brain where anatomical abnormalities are linked to autism. As part of the new center, they are leading an investigation on how neurobiological mechanisms in the brain’s amygdala, anterior cingulate, hippocampus, and prefrontal cortex may be involved in the disorder.

Meanwhile, Tager-Flusberg and Alice Carter, a psychology professor at the University of Massachusetts, Boston, are heading a study that will follow 300 toddlers diagnosed with autism for five years, evaluating their language, social, and psychological development, among other factors. Robert Joseph, a MED assistant professor of anatomy and neurobiology, who is contributing to several of the center’s research projects, will clinically evaluate the children. The study also will examine the effects on parents of having a child with autism.

“We believe that families whose children have a lot of so-called secondary symptoms associated with autism, such as aggressiveness and irregular sleep patterns, may feel more stress than do parents whose children don’t have those behavior problems,” says Tager-Flusberg, who leads MED’s clinical research program on autism. She also directs BU’s Laboratory of Developmental Cognitive Neuroscience, which oversees several research projects pertaining to autism. Some of those projects are funded by another major NIH initiative, the Collaborative Programs of Excellence in Autism.

“Parents may differ in their ability to cope with a child’s autism, which may in turn affect a child’s development and sense of well-being,” Tager-Flusberg continues. “Ultimately, we hope this study will lead to the development of new interventions and support systems for families.”

Nationwide cooperation

Under the auspices of the BU Autism Research Center, a Dartmouth Medical School drug trial is the first of several projects involving the collaboration of more than one of the STAART centers. In addition, a University of Wisconsin study will use computer imaging and MRI scans, as well as more traditional methods of observing behavior, to examine how people with autism register social stimuli. Preliminary data indicate, for example, that people with autism may not look directly at other people’s faces when it is appropriate, as evidenced by their brain activity and other arousal signs when they appear to be looking at a face.

Like many studies overseen by the new center, the Wisconsin study “has huge potential to help piece together the causes of autism,” says Tager-Flusberg, because it incorporates many research methods and draws on expertise from several disciplines. “It will link genetic variation, brain response, arousal patterns, and behavior,” she says, “in order to form a deep understanding of why people with autism have difficulty dealing with social stimuli.”

In addition to conducting research, the center will offer support services to families participating in its research projects through partner clinical programs, and develop educational materials to disseminate the results of its research findings. It is appropriate that the STAART centers should directly assist those needing autism support services, Folstein points out, because parent groups pressuring the NIH for more autism research during the 1990s are partly responsible for the recent infusion of research dollars.

“These STAART centers represent the first time that autism researchers are united in their goals,” she adds. “The scientists from all the important disciplines have realized that they will hang separately if they don’t hang together, so they no longer are holding their cards close to their chest.”

For more information about autism research at BU, visit http://www.bu.edu/anatneuro/dcn.


26 September 2003
Boston University
Office of University Relations