UW News

June 5, 2003

$8.6 million grant will help with earlier autism diagnosis

Autism research at the UW has received a major boost with an $8.6 million grant from the National Institutes of Health. The grant, which runs for five years, nearly doubles the research funding of the UW’s Autism Center, directed by psychology professor Geraldine Dawson.

The UW Autism Center will use the infusion of new funding to expand its research in three areas: the early diagnosis of autism, the impact of early intervention on brain development and a number of brain imaging studies using state of the art technology.

“We know early intervention can have a big impact on children with autism and one of our goals is focused on very early diagnosis of the disorder,” Dawson said. “The potential impact of intervention is great during the first two years of life when many of the brain systems affected by autism are coming on line and are still plastic.”

Currently the average age for diagnosing autism is between 3 and 4 years. The UW research is designed to drop the age to as early as 18 months. To do this, scientists will screen and evaluate infants and toddlers who are at risk for autism because they have an older sibling with the disorder. These children have a 5 percent chance of having autism because the disorder has a genetic component.

Dawson and other UW researchers also will study aspects of language, social and brain development in an attempt to determine when the brains of children with autism become enlarged. Recent UW research has shown that overall brain size and the amygdala, a small structure in the brain involved in emotional processing, are enlarged in 3- and 4-year-old children with autism.

The grant also will enable researchers to evaluate the impact of an intensive early intervention program developed at the UW on brain development. Starting at about 18 months of age, youngsters who are identified with autism will receive 25 to 30 hours of intensive treatment per week for two years. The intervention focuses on promoting social development, which is a core problem of autism, according to Dawson.

Brain imaging research will explore in detail the functioning of brain regions that are critical for processing social and emotional information and storing information about people.

Last year, the UW Autism Center received a $10.2 million grant from the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development to uncover the genetic and neurobiological causes of autism.

Autism is a spectrum of developmental disorders that interfere with a child’s ability to communicate or relate socially with other people. Those afflicted have a restricted range of activities and interests, and about 75 percent of children with autism also have some form of mental retardation.

The new grant was one of six made by NIH to support autism research. Other institutions receiving awards were the University of California, Los Angeles; Boston University; the University of Rochester; the Kennedy Krieger Institute; and the Mount Sinai School of Medicine.

Researchers working with Dawson include Stephen Dager, professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences; Patricia Kuhl and Andrew Meltzoff, co-directors of the Center for Mind, Brain and Learning; Elizabeth Aylward, professor of radiology; Todd Richards, professor of radiology; and Robert Abbott, professor of educational psychology.

The UW’s Autism Center is co-funded by the NIH and a pair of $5 million gifts from former Microsoft executive Richard Fade and his wife, Susan, and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. The center is an interdisciplinary collaboration involving the Center on Human Development and Disability, the College of Arts and Sciences, and the School of Medicine and College of Education.