$6 million grant to expand search for autism genes

March 11, 2002

The National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) today awarded the first installment of an expected $6 million grant over 5 years to researchers at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) for major expansion of a collaborative effort to identify autism vulnerability genes.

Daniel Geschwind, M.D., Ph.D., and colleagues at UCLA Neuropsychiatric Institute will direct the project, in partnership with the citizens group Cure Autism Now (CAN), to add 300 more families to its Autism Genetic Resource Exchange (AGRE) gene bank. The information and samples gathered in the study will be broadly shared with the research community through AGRE and a repository maintained by the NIMH Human Genetics Initiative.

Autism begins in early childhood and impairs thinking, feeling, language and the ability to relate to others. While causes and effective treatments have thus far eluded science, evidence suggests that the disorder is highly heritable. However, it is thought to stem from interactions among multiple, as yet unknown, genes, complicating the research challenge. Recent genome scans have identified several chromosomal sites likely harboring disease vulnerability genes.

"Genetics research is especially promising for understanding autism," said NIMH Acting Director Richard K. Nakamura, Ph.D. "Expanding the AGRE sample to maximize its statistical power will help to pinpoint the vulnerability genes themselves."

The grant will total $6,217,225 over five years, with $1,156,737 awarded today for the first year. Collaborating on the project with Geschwind are co-principal investigators Stanley Nelson, M.D., and Rita Cantor, Ph.D., UCLA; J. Conrad Gilliam, Ph.D., Columbia University; and Christa Lese, Ph.D., University of Chicago.

The AGRE gene bank was created by the CAN Foundation to advance genetics research on the disorder. AGRE DNA samples and clinical data are obtained from families that have more than one member diagnosed with autism, pervasive developmental disorder (PDD) or Asperger's syndrome, which are genetically related. A diagnostic team visits the home of each family to collect the data during a 2-hour screening.
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The National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) is part of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), the Federal Government's primary agency for biomedical and behavioral research. NIH is a component of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

NIH/National Institute of Mental Health

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