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January 2011

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Birnbaum addresses Mt. Sinai autism workshop

By Eddy Ball
January 2011

NIEHS/NTP Director Linda Birnbaum, Ph.D.

Birnbaum is raising awareness among advocacy groups and scientists that virtually every kind of research funded by NIEHS has a bearing on neurodevelopment. (Photo courtesy of the University of Illinois)

MSSM Chairman of the Department of Preventive Medicine Philip Landrigan, M.D.

Landrigan is the principal investigator for one of the National Children's Study vanguard centers and a tireless advocate for children's environmental health. (Photo courtesy of Mount Sinai School of Medicine)

Irva Hertz-Picciotto, Ph.D.

Herz-Picciotto has looked at several factors, including mitochondrial disorders and proximity to high-volume traffic, that could help trigger autism. (Photo courtesy of the University of California Regents)

Craig J. Newschaffer, Ph.D.

Newshaffer and colleagues will follow an enriched-risk pregnancy cohort of up to 1,200 participants over a three-year period. (Photo courtesy of Drexel University)

NIEHS/NTP Director Linda Birnbaum, Ph.D., was the keynote speaker among a group of presenters who gathered Dec. 8 for a scientific workshop at the New York Academy of Medicine.

The workshop, "Exploring the Environmental Causes of Autism and Learning Disabilities,"( Exit NIEHS brought together NIEHS grantees and partners in the ongoing search for ways to prevent autism. The event was hosted by NIH-funded researchers at Mount Sinai School of Medicine (MSSM), led by MSSM Chairman of the Department of Preventive Medicine Philip Landrigan, M.D., in partnership with Autism Speaks, represented by Director of Research for Environmental Sciences Alycia Halladay, Ph.D.

Along with principal investigators on four autism studies (see text box), speakers in the first part of the workshop included representatives of the advocacy group Autism Speaks, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), and the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD).

In the second half of the workshop, members of the MSSM faculty presented resources for autism and learning disabilities research, and Landrigan concluded with a talk about the challenges ahead in autism research.

The NIEHS commitment to autism research

As the keynote presentation, Birnbaum's talk, "What Research is NIEHS Supporting into Environmental Causes of Autism and Learning Disabilities?" underscored the deep commitment to autism research by NIEHS, which she described as "the only Institute of NIH that focuses on public health and prevention."

Birnbaum described the direct investment of $30 million in animal and human studies of neurodevelopment by NIEHS. She also pointed to research efforts in all the different components of NIEHS that contribute to advancing the science relevant to neurodevelopmental disorders, such as basic research in neurotoxicology and exposure science that will be essential for understanding and informing human studies in autism.

"About two-thirds of these projects are human studies, with the rest laboratory based mechanistic studies," Birnbaum explained. "The support mechanisms range from small exploratory grants to individual investigator-initiated R01s [research project grants] to large, multi-project grants."

The impressive list of highlights began with the Children's Environmental Health and Disease Prevention Program, one of the largest research investments by NIEHS in autism and neurodevelopment. Birnbaum said that six of the 14 centers are focused wholly, or in part, on neurodevelopmental outcomes - the University of California (UC), Davis; UC, Berkeley; University of Washington; Columbia University; and University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, which houses an exploratory center.

Along with directly funding neurodevelopmental research, Birnbaum continued, NIEHS, together with several other NIH institutes, funded the Early Autism Risk Longitudinal Investigation (EARLI) network study, as part of the trans-NIH Autism Centers of Excellence (ACE) program. She followed with an impressive list of findings by Center researchers and individual investigators.

Turning to other components of NIEHS, Birnbaum talked about studies by the National Toxicology Program and basic mechanistic research in the intramural program's Laboratory of Neurobiology.

In closing, Birnbaum looked to the future as NIEHS builds upon its successes to move ahead in concert with its partners. "Future NIEHS activities in neurodevelopment will emphasize priorities identified through strategic planning and coordination with other federal agencies, the meaningful involvement of affected communities, and the translation of findings to public health and prevention," she concluded.

Autism research project reports

Also presenting at the workshop were four principal investigators of ongoing studies of the causes of autism:

  • Irva Hertz-Picciotto, Ph.D., professor and chief, Division of Environmental and Occupational Health, Department of Public Health Sciences at the University of California, Davis - "Environment and Autism: State of the Science and the CHARGE [Childhood Autism Risks from Genetics and Environment] Study" - funded by NIEHS (see story (
  • Craig J. Newschaffer, Ph.D., professor and chairman, Department of Epidemiology and Biostatistics Drexel University School of Public Health - "The EARLI [Early Autism Risk Longitudinal Investigation] Network" - funded partially by NIEHS as an NIH Autism Center of Excellence (see story(
  • Young-Shin Kim, M.D., Ph.D., assistant professor, the Child Study Center at Yale University School of Medicine - "The Korean Autism Study" - funded by the Simons Foundation
  • Christine Roth, visiting research scholar in the Department of Epidemiology of the Mailman School of Public Health at Columbia University - "The Norwegian Mother and Child Cohort Study" - supported in part by NIEHS(

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