This is an archived article.

June 10, 1997

Families with two autistic children sought for new study that hopes to discover genetic, neurobiological causes of disorder

In a major effort to discover the genetic causes of autism and develop intervention programs to assist children with the severe developmental disorder, an interdisciplinary team of University of Washington researchers has begun a nationwide effort to recruit at least 200 families with two or more autistic children for a new $5.6 million study.

The study, which is also designed to uncover the neurobiological causes of autism, a disorder that is far more common than once believed, is being funded by the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, one of the National Institutes of Health. The family study of autism is being directed by Geraldine Dawson, a UW professor of psychology and leading autism researcher who several years ago developed a new technique for the early identification of autistic infants by studying home videos of their first birthday parties.

Dawson said the researchers are seeking to enroll a minimum of 200 families with two or more autistic children from throughout the country for the genetics portion of the study. Genetic testing will be conducted at cooperating universities in Florida, Oregon, Tennessee, Montana and Alaska, as well as at the UW. Children selected for the study will receive free diagnostic and medical evaluations. Travel, hotel and meal expenses associated with the study also will be covered.

For the neurobiological studies, the researchers are seeking three groups of Washington state children ages two to four. The researchers are looking for 75 children with autism, 75 who are mentally retarded and 75 who are developing normally.

Autism is a severe developmental disorder that interferes with a child’s ability to communicate or relate socially with other people, and afflicted persons have a restricted range of activities and interests. Approximately 75 percent of children with autism also have some form of mental retardation.

Dawson said the prevalence of autism in the general population is much higher than previously thought with one person out of 1,000, or approximately 266,000 Americans, suffering from the disorder.

Among the goals of the five-year UW study are finding the genetic marker or markers for autism and improving detection of the disorder during infancy so children and their families can be helped as soon as possible.

In addition, she said the researchers hope to:

? deepen understanding of the neurobiological basis of autism by studying how brain development in autistic children differs from that of normally developing children.

? identify behavioral and biological predictors of which children will respond to intervention programs.

? determine if there are distinct subtypes of autism, similar to what researchers are discovering about Alzheimer’s disease.

She said the UW study hopes to be able to provide new answers to the primary questions usually asked by the parents of autistic children: What causes autism and is it genetic? What is wrong with my child? And what can I expect and how will my child respond or not respond to treatment and intervention programs to help children?

Parents with two autistic children who are interested in enrolling them in the study or want more information may call Cathy Brock, Dawson’s assistant at the University of Washington in Seattle, at (1-800) 994-9701 or contact her by e-mail at: cbrock@u.washington.edu.

Co-investigators on the family study of autism are Patricia Kuhl, professor of speech and hearing sciences; Andrew Meltzoff, professor of psychology; Gerard Shellenberg, research professor of medicine and Dr. Stephen Dager, associate professor of psychiatry and behavioral science. The study, which will run for five years, will be headquartered in the Center on Human Development and Disability on the UW campus.

Several years ago, Dawson used home videos of children’s first birthday parties to identify behaviors enabling her research team to diagnose autistic toddlers with 91 percent accuracy. Prior to that autism typically wasn’t diagnosed until between the ages of three and four. Part of the new research effort will replicate the earlier study and help the UW researchers to develop a checklist that will enable pediatricians and other professionals to identify autistic infants as early as six months of age.

To unravel the neurobiology of autism, Dawson said researchers will use a number of non-invasive imaging techniques to find what parts of the brain are not functioning properly in autistic children. Among these techniques are high density electroencephalography which uses a cap with 128 electrodes that is placed on a child’s head to produce sophisticated maps of brain activity. It will show how the brain responds to social activities such as when a child is shown a picture of its mother. Magnetic resonance imaging spectroscopy, which traces brain chemicals that are markers of neural activity, also will be used to show patterns of activity in specific brain areas as they are developing early in life and over time.

Dawson also is interested in finding out why some autistic children respond well to intervention programs while others do not. About half the children with autism react positively, their IQ increases in response to early intervention and they are able to function in a general school classroom, she said. But another large group of autistic children does not respond to intervention and remains mute.

“We will try to find out what accounts for this by tracking children and their response to intervention programs. We suspect biological factors and the intensity of the intervention will be important in its success. We also need to find out when is the best time to start intervention,” she said.

“Research into Alzheimer’s is showing that there are sub groups of people who are affected differently by the disease. We believe the same will be true of autism and suspect there are two types.”

The UW study is one of three new major and several smaller research efforts being funded by the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development to learn more about autism. The other two major projects include a cooperative study involving Yale, UCLA and University of Chicago researchers and one based at the University of Pittsburgh.

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For more information, contact Dawson at (206) 543-1051 or by e-mail at dawson@u.washington.edu. <!—at end of each paragraph insert

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