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NIEHS and EPA Fund Innovative Autism Program

By Eddy Ball
September 2007

Autism Poster

A new five-year federal grant totaling $7.5 million will allow the University Of California - Davis Center For Children's Environmental Health to expand a pilot program that will become the first prospective study to begin the study of autism in the early gestation and infancy of at-risk children. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) ( Exit NIEHS Website and NIEHS, partners in the nation-wide Children's Environmental Health Centers initiative, are jointly funding the program. The grant will be administered by Cindy Lawler, Ph.D., program administrator in the NIEHS Division of Extramural Research and Training.

The program, called Markers of Autism Risk in Babies-Learning Early Signs (MARBLES) is an extension of work underway as part of the Childhood Autism Risks from Genetics and the Environment (CHARGE). MARBLES will complement on-going CHARGE research into the influence of environmental factors and genetics and the interplay of the two in the development of autism.

MARBLES targets pregnant women who have at least one child with autism because they are at least ten times more likely to have another child with the disorder. The 20 participants currently enrolled in MARBLES undergo a battery of evaluations of their environmental exposures, genetics and immune systems during pregnancy, birth and nursing. Their children's development will be monitored closely until age 3.

"As comprehensive as CHARGE is," explained Principal Investigator Irva Hertz-Picciotto, Ph.D., "I realized the limitations of any study that begins looking for causes of autism after the diagnosis is made at age 2 or 3." According to Hertz-Picciotto, one outcome of the MARBLES study may be clarification of CHARGE data indicating that the immune systems of autistic children function differently than the immune systems of children developing normally.

Autism is a pervasive developmental disorder marked by poor verbal and communication skills, repetitive behaviors and an inability to form social connections. The condition has long been suspected of having its origins much earlier in a child's life - in early infancy, gestation and even prior to conception. Autistic children may seem normal during infancy and typically begin to show symptoms of the condition only after they reach age two to three.

"Autism is very complex. It is probably several disorders converging in a common diagnosis," said Isaac Pessah, Ph.D., who has led the CCEH since its establishment in 2001. "We actually don't anticipate finding just one factor that causes it, but will instead uncover patterns of susceptibilities and external influences that can lead to different forms of the disorder."

The program expects to increase participation and ultimately include 200 women who are pregnant or considering getting pregnant. MARBLES is currently recruiting women who live within a two-hour driving distance of Sacramento, meet the criteria of having at least one autistic child and are willing to make a four- to five-year commitment to the study.

"MARBLES is one component of a larger NIEHS and US EPA-supported Children's Center for Environmental Health and Disease Prevention located at the University of California at Davis," explained Program Administrator Cindy Lawler. "This Center supports an interdisciplinary team of scientists who are using many strategies to understand environmental contributors to autism, from studies in cells and animals, to epidemiologic and clinical investigations such as MARBLES."

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