Scientists Use Crowdfunding To Raise Funds And Awareness For Autism Research

Connie K. Ho for — Your Universe Online

Thanksgiving may be over, but the gift-giving frenzy is just about to start. If you´re looking for a unique gift this holiday season, look no further. For those generous loved ones who believe that giving is receiving, one increasingly popular gift idea is to donate to a research project listed on so-called ℠crowdfunding´ sites. Crowdfunding gives individuals the chance to network together and pool their resources to support people or organizations.

Three groups of researchers from universities across the country are utilizing this innovative online platform to raise both money and awareness for autism research. Crowdfunding an autism research project gives donors the opportunity to both support critical research in the early detection of this debilitating developmental disorder as well as to become a virtual research project team member by receiving regular progress updates from their university labs.

Here are three cutting-edge autism research projects to check out.

Autism and Protein Markers

When most non-scientists hear the word “protein”, they tend to think of a food group. However, researchers at Clarkson University have embarked on a project that uses proteins and a lab analysis technique known as mass spectrometry in an attempt to create the first biological diagnostic test for autism.

Led by Costel Darie and Alisa Woods, assistant professors of Chemistry and Biomolecular Science at Clarkson University and members of the Darie Research Group, the group has set out to analyze proteins found in the blood and saliva of children diagnosed with autism. These test results are then compared to the results of children who do not have autism, and Woods says that the team has already found several biomarkers that present exciting possibilities for determining autism risk. Following-up on these promising finds, however, will require extensive additional research, which means that additional funding is also needed.

Woods is no ivory-tower researcher, and she says that she was motivated to start this project based on her own personal experiences with the disease.

“My son has autism and that made me really interested in autism,” she said.

In the lab the researchers work with either saliva or blood collected from study participants. They start by separating proteins from the fluids using either a solution or a gel depending on the specific proteins that they are looking for.

“When the samples are soluble (e.g. saliva, sera), in solution works best. When they are membrane proteins or cellular proteins (organelle, plasma membrane, etc.), the in-gel digestion works best. However, there is no best defined choice,” explained Darie in an email with redOrbit. “The in gel and in-solution digestion reveal a different set of proteins and therefore, they complement with each other. Most people use only one approach. We use these two, plus additional protocols that allow us to extract most of the information from the samples.”

The next step involves mass spectrometry to produce spectra. “There´s nothing original about the test using mass spectroscopy, but what´s original is about the new technology and the variety of ways approaching it,” explained Woods.

A database called Mascot is used to determine the types of proteins and to quantify them. Lastly, analysis takes place with the use of a hi-tech program called Scaffold that allows the researchers to learn about the identified proteins. The Scaffold software costs thousands of dollars, and the team is currently using a 14-day trial version of the program which is set to expire soon. Funds donated to this project will go to purchasing analytical software.

Emphasizing the importance of this software for their research, the group´s website says: “We have tried to obtain funding by applying for grants, but without extensive data we were unable to obtain funding. It is hard to obtain enough data without our own version of the software. If we can get Scaffold then we could obtain the data and have a better chance of getting funded by a large organization like the National Institute of Health. National Institute of Health or other funding could support our research for an extended time and we could move forward with our investigation of autism biomarkers.”

Find out more about the project and donate online before Dec. 14 by visiting the research team´s RocketHub website “Autism and Protein Markers

Autism Intervention: Seeing Faces as a Whole

Video gamers unite! In this project, researchers from Penn State have set out to build and experiment with computer-based interventions for children diagnosed with autism. These tests can then help boost the kids´ social skills along with their ability to process facial features.

Children with autism face challenges with socially related skills such as making eye contact, recognizing other people´s faces or understanding facial expressions that are linked to various emotions. With this in mind, the team of investigators at Penn State is conducting an Autism Intervention Round 1, where they are looking at ways to improve the face-processing ability of young kids with autism, and an Autism Intervention Round 2, where they plan to develop a video game that makes these interventions more engaging.

“I thought we could do a lot better job of making learning fun while still being effective. What we´re looking to do is adding more gaming features to social skills intervention—gaming features like awarding points, having a storyline more integrated and dynamic, highlighting educational gestures rather than making [kids] feel like they are just pushing buttons and not doing something,” explained Dr. Elisabeth Whyte, a psychology post-doc research assistant, lecturer and member of the Laboratory of Developmental Neuroscience at Penn State University.

“Serious game literature really highlights how engagement is an important aspect. Features of games can make children and adolescents and, even adults, attend to the material and learn better when they are really engaged.”

Similar to Alisa Woods, Whyte was also motivated to conduct research on autism based on her personal interactions with children who were diagnosed on the autism spectrum disorder.

“When I was an undergraduate, my friends would ask me questions that science hadn´t answers to yet,” Whyte explained. “We didn´t know a whole lot about autism, and it´s been exciting to be in a field of research that has grown in leaps and bounds in recent years “¦ It´s a collaborative research team at Penn State with a couple of researchers from different departments that are coming together to help build this new technology.”

The funds raised for this project will support research projects that are slated to begin at the start of the spring 2013 semester (January) and continue through the end of the summer semester (August). This includes the Autism Intervention Round 1, where researchers are looking to bring in participants to the lab, and the Autism Intervention Round 2, where the team is looking to supplement supplies and incidentals that are needed for the video game.

Find out more about the project and donate online before Dec. 14 by visiting the research team´s RocketHub website “Autism Intervention: Seeing Faces As A Whole

KOULE the Smart Ball

One in 88 children are diagnosed with autism according to Que Innovations. With its crowdfunding site, the company plans to raise money to manufacture and ship KOULE (pronounced “cool”), a child development device that comes pre-loaded with games for autism-specific applications.

“[The games] are all specifically designed to help your child in some way, whether the focus of the game is to get them moving and exercising “¦ to get them learning things “¦ to help with autism issue, or the focus of the game could just be to encourage social interaction or to help with emotional well being,” said Tamie Salter in a video clip about KOULE.

KOULE is a hi-tech robotic ball equipped with motion, lights, colors, sounds and even touch sensors. The company has already developed a prototype that has been tested in trials with kids.

The funds raised for this project will help the team complete the commercial design, pay for the final touches on the software “games/apps,” and end in the completion of the final product.

Find out more about the project and donate online before Dec. 14 by visiting the research team´s IndieGogo website “KOULE, the smart ball