MIND Institute researchers receive grants from Autism Speaks

Aim is for the scientists to study autism from two different perspectives

Jeffrey Bouley
SACRAMENTO, Calif.—Two University of California, Davis (UC Davis) MINDInstitute researchers that the university touts as "internationally respected" have received grants from Autism Speaks, anational autism advocacy and science organization, to study autism fromtwo different perspectives.
 
Sally Ozonoff, an endowed professor in the Department of Psychiatry and BehavioralSciences, has received a three-year, $450,000 grant todevelop a new, video-based method of identifying autism in very youngchildren.
 
Ozonoff will collaborate with a company that produces software forfamilies of children with autism to develop and pilot a new video-basedautism screening measure, the Video-Referenced Infant Rating System forAutism, or VIRSA.
 
The tool is intended to be a secure, confidential website whereparents can view videos depicting children with the condition, selectingthose that show behaviors that are most like their child's.The research is aimed at creating a tool that can help identify autismrisk at a younger age, offering the opportunity for intervention beforefull-symptom onset.
 
The new measure has potential for much wider usethan existing measures, which rely upon visits to healthcare providers.Since the VIRSA is intended for Internet administration, it reportedly will be oflower cost than tests that require clinic visits, as well as beingimmediately accessible, rather than requiring the lengthy waits forappointments that are typical of most clinics.
 
"When we interview parents about their child's development, we may ask'Does your baby do that?' and we sometimes have difficulty conveyingwhat we mean," Ozonoff said."But when we show them a video they immediately recognize the behaviorand are better able to answer. We think that using video will make theprocess of early screening easier for parents than relying on writtendescriptions of behavior alone."
 
After it is developed, Ozonoff and her colleagues will study VIRSA's useby administering it three times—at 6, 12 and 18 months—to parents ofinfants who are at a familial risk of autism spectrum disorder. Thestudy will examine the measure's accuracy by comparing its results withalready established autism screening tools.
 
Jacqueline Crawley, the Robert E. Chason endowed chair in translational research in the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences, hasreceived a one-year, $94,000 equipment grant from Autism Speaks for thestart-up of a new preclinical initiative to discover pharmacologicalcompounds effective in treating the diagnostic symptoms of autism.
 
The grant will establish the first phase of the Preclinical AutismConsortium for Therapeutics, or PACT, which will test compounds ingenetic mouse and rat models of autism, for reversal of autism-relevantbehaviors and physiology.
 
Crawley will test potential new medications in mice with mutations ingenes associated with autism that display behaviors analogous to thecore symptoms of autism, such as abnormal social behavior, reducedvocalization, repetitive self-grooming, stereotyped circling andanxiety-like behaviors, among other features.
 
PACT, a multicenterconsortium initiated in collaboration with the leadership of AutismSpeaks, includes two other founding principal investigators.One is Richard Paylor, a colleague at Baylor College of Medicine, who will conductanalogous behavioral assays in rats with parallel mutations. Acollaborator at Boston Children's Hospital and Harvard Medical School,Mustafa Sahin, will conduct physiological assays in the same mutantmouse and rat models of autism.
 
In addition, Jill Silverman, assistant adjunctprofessor and a collaborator with Crawley, is a key investigator in thePACT initiative.
 
The animals will be administered compounds that represent potentialpharmacological therapeutics, to test their ability to restore normalsociability and communication skills and lessen other autism-relevantbehaviors. Compounds that reduce symptoms in both mouse and rat modelsof autism will point the way to clinical trials for medications toimprove the symptoms of autism in humans.
 
"PACT represents the first concerted effort to evaluate a broad range ofnovel pharmacological targets in multiple rodent genetic models ofautism using rigorously standardized assays. Compounds effective atreversing social deficits and repetitive behaviors in mouse and ratmodels could translate to clinical successes in effectively treatingdiagnostic symptoms in adults, teenagers, and children with autism,"Crawley said.
 
"These grants from Autism Speaks are helping to launch two very excitingprojects," said Leonard Abbeduto, director of the MIND Institute. "TheOzonoff project has the potential to improve early diagnosis and thus,ensure earlier provision of needed services for families. The grant tothe Crawley lab is the first step in creating an infrastructure todramatically accelerate the development of drug treatments for autism.Both projects have the potential to significantly change clinicalservices for affected individuals."

SOURCE: MIND Institute news release
 

Jeffrey Bouley

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