College of Arts & Sciences

arts&sciences

Finding Their Speech

NIH grants $10 million to establish an Autism Center of Excellence at BU.

By Susan Seligson

Between one in 50 and one in 88 children has been identified with autism spectrum disorder (ASD), up from an estimated one in 155 a decade ago, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 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 spectrum disorder population.

In October, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) awarded Boston University $10 million to establish an Autism Center of Excellence (ACE). 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 who hope for guidance in helping children with a broad range of social and learning deficits.

Helen Tager-Flusberg, who has studied language acquisition and autism for 30 years, will head BU’s new Autism Center of Excellence. Photo by Melody Komyerov and Kalman Zabarsky

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 aspect of ASD.

“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 to build some unified infrastructure,” 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 “really important questions.”

Tager-Flusberg says the research will focus on developing novel methods for assessing people with autism who have not acquired spoken language, using innovative technologies, as well as brain and behavioral studies aimed at identifying the reasons for this failure. In addition to further evaluating AMMT, other investigations will use magnetic resonance imaging as well as electrophysiology and the efforts of scientists from the College of Health & Rehabilitation Sciences: Sargent College and the College of Engineering, says Tager-Flusberg. Research training will be another of the center’s components. “We’ll include all the students and postdocs involved in different projects,” she 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 to 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 be used eventually to predict whether or not therapy will be successful.

A version of this article appeared in BU Today.