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Autism Speaks On US Senate Hearing On Potential Environmental Health Factors In Autism

August 4, 2010

Autism Speaks comments on state of research on potential environmental health factors with autism following US Senate committee on environment and public works, subcommittee on children’s health

Autism Speaks’ Chief Science Officer Geraldine Dawson, Ph.D. emphasized the importance of research on environmental risk factors for autism spectrum disorders as the U.S. Senate Committee on Environment & Public Works, Subcommittee on Children’s Health convened a special hearing on potential environmental health factors associated with autism spectrum disorders (ASD) and related neurodevelopmental disorders. The hearing is examining the latest research on potential environmental factors that may increase the risk for autism spectrum disorders.

As this hearing reviews studies funded by the Environmental Protection Agency and the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences on environmental factors associated with autism, including toxins and other factors that can influence brain development, Dr. Dawson reiterated that it is important to remember that, “Although genetic factors clearly contribute to the causes of autism, we also need to understand environmental factors and their interactions with genetic susceptibility.”

The dramatic increase in autism prevalence over the last decade ““ increasing 600 percent in the last two decades ““ underscores the need for more research on environmental factors. “Our understanding of typical brain development combined with what we’ve learned from examining the brains of individuals with autism indicates that it is important to investigate the roles of the prenatal and early postnatal environment,” explains Dr. Dawson. “To investigate environmental factors that may be active during this time, researchers are casting a wide net on potential environmental agents that can alter neurodevelopment, including exposure to infection, pesticides, and chemicals.”

One of the ways that researchers are looking at interactions between the environment and genetic susceptibility is through epigenetics. Epigenetics refers to changes in the expression of genes caused by mechanisms other than changes in the underlying sequence of DNA. Through epigenetic mechanisms, environmental factors can change the way each bit of genetic code is read, amplifying the product of a certain piece of code while turning off another such that it is not read at all. The notion that environmental factors can have such dramatic effects on how DNA is read makes research on epigenetics an important priority.

To help speed an understanding of environmental factors, Autism Speaks is supporting research on several fronts. In 2008, Autism Speaks launched the Environmental Factors Initiative to fund investigators researching aspects of environmental causes and autism. www.autismspeaks.org/science/research/initiatives/environmental_factors.php.

A collaboration with the National Institute for Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS) has resulted in a network of 35 international scientists who gathered at this year’s International Meeting for Autism Research (IMFAR) to promote collaboration, identify gaps in our understanding and foster opportunities for innovative research which is discussed in more detail in Dr. Dawson’s 2010 IMFAR recap found at: www.autismspeaks.org/science/science_news/geri_dawson_imfar_2010_recap.php. This fall, Autism Speaks and NIEHS will co-sponsor a workshop to help identify the most promising strategies and scientific directions for understanding the role of the environment in ASD.

A large collaborative study which will pull together data from six international registries is being funded by Autism Speaks to explore early environmental risk factors for ASD described in more detail at this link: http://www.autismspeaks.org/science/science_news/ icare_multi_registry_risk_factor_analysis.php.

Autism Speaks is also leveraging longstanding investments to make the best use of research resources that currently exist. For example, the Autism Genetic Resource Exchange (AGRE), a premiere genetic resource for scientists studying autism, is now collecting environmental data from families to pair with the genetic and medical data.

Autism Speaks has also partnered with the National Institutes of Health to fund the EARLI and IBIS research networks to study environmental factors in infants at risk for autism. The EARLI network (http://www.autismspeaks.org/science/science_news/ early_autism_ risk_longitudinal_investigation_epigenetics.php) is following 1200 mothers of children with autism from the start of another pregnancy through the baby sibling’s third birthday. The IBIS network (http://www.autismspeaks.org/science/science_news/ sibling_brain imaging_study.php) is charting the course of brain development in infant siblings of children with autism. Together with Autism Speaks, these groups are exploring both genetic and environmental risk factors for ASD.

“Autism Speaks’ investment in research on environmental factors promises to shed light on an important area of autism research that has until recently remained in the shadows,” concluded Dr. Dawson. “As the U.S. Senate focuses on the needs of the growing population diagnosed with autism we look forward to following the new directions illuminated by the discoveries made possible by these various research opportunities.”

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