International Meeting for Autism Research reports latest on autism causes and treatments

May 06, 2009

CHICAGO, IL - The 8th Annual International Meeting for Autism Research (IMFAR) will host more than 1500 researchers, delegates, autism specialists, and students in the world's largest gathering of researchers and clinicians devoted to a better understanding of autism. The meeting will be held at the Hilton Chicago Hotel from May 6-9, 2009. Meeting sponsors include Autism Speaks, the Simons Foundation, the Autism Society of America and the National Institutes of Health.

Attendance at this year's meeting is up more than 20 percent from the previous year, reflecting heightened interest and more awareness of this disorder that is now recognized to affect up to one in 150 children in the United States and an estimated one percent of individuals worldwide.

Current research on autism spectrum disorders (ASDs) involves sophisticated behavioral, genetic and biological approaches that require interdisciplinary research collaborations to gain comprehensive knowledge of the disorder. Scientists at IMFAR will discuss and disseminate the latest scientific findings aiming to stimulate research progress toward a better understanding of the nature, causes and treatment options for ASDs. By bringing together both clinicians and research scientists, IMFAR provides a unique opportunity to foster international dialogue across various disciplines and methods.

This year's meeting includes over 900 research and educational presentations, lectures and panel discussions. In addition, there will be a new feature: a daylong demonstration of the latest Innovative Technologies for Autism on Friday, May 8 from 9:00 a.m. - 5:30 p.m.

Detail abstracts can be found at and highlight are included below.


Press Conference - Panel Discussion
Hilton Chicago, Third Floor
720 South Michigan Avenue, Chicago, Ill.
4:00 p.m.

Bob Schultz, Ph.D., President of the International Society for Autism Research; Geraldine Dawson, Ph.D., Chief Science Officer, Autism Speaks; Gerry Fischbach, M.D., Scientific Director, Simons Foundation; Manny DiCicco-Bloom, M.D., IMFAR Press Liaison; Adrian Oblak, Boston University School of Medicine; David S. Mandell, Sc.D., University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine; Michael Cuccaro, Ph.D., University of Miami, Miller School of Medicine; David McCoy, Florida State University

Leading autism experts will discuss the latest in autism research, the potential impact of this research and provide a preview of research presentations to be given at the conference as well as be available for questions and answers. Note: Pre-conference and embargoed study information will be provided to media attending this panel discussion.


Keynote - Fulfilling the Promise of Molecular Medicine in Autism
8:40 a.m.
Mark Bear, Ph.D., MIT

Metabotropic glutamate receptors (mGluRs) have been implicated in a diverse variety of neuronal functions. Data indicate that exaggerated signaling through mGluR5 can account for multiple cognitive and syndromic features of fragile X syndrome, the most common inherited form of mental retardation and autism. Since a reduction of mGluR5 signaling can reverse fragile X phenotypes in animals, these studies provide a compelling rationale for the use of mGluR5 antagonists for the treatment of fragile X and autism.

A Genome-Wide Association Study of Autism Reveals a Common Novel Risk Locus at 5p14.1
10:30 a.m.
Deqiong Ma, M.D., Ph.D., and Margaret A. Pericak-Vance, Ph.D., Miami Institute for Human Genomics, University of Miami Miller School of Medicine

Recently developed methods now allow for testing of large numbers of DNA markers across the human genome. One of these methods, a genome wide association study, involves testing as many as one million markers, which are small changes in DNA sequence known as single nucleotide polymorphisms (SNPs), across the genome in a given individual. In a genome wide association study or GWAS, these markers or SNPs are tested to determine if they occur more frequently in people with a certain trait or disease. In this study they conducted a GWAS in 438 individuals and their family members to search for SNPs that were more common in autism. They tested one million SNPs to find those that were more likely related to autism risk and identified a novel region of interest on chromosome 5p14.1. The SNPs in this region were found in the discovery dataset and reproduced in a separate independent dataset. This region provides evidence for the first common risk variant in autism, or one that occurs in many people and produces a small but meaningful biological effect relevant to the disease or trait. In this case, the identified region is close to specific genes (cadherins) that control how the brain develops connections among important areas. This finding provides a new direction for understanding molecular contributions to the complex architecture of autism.

Screening Children Between 18 and 24 Months Using the Systematic Observation of Red Flags (SORF) for Autism Spectrum Disorders: A Follow-up Study
2:30 p.m.
David McCoy, M.S., Amy Miller Wetherby, Ph.D. and Juliann Woods, Ph.D., Communication Science and Disorders, Florida State University

The three major objectives of this study were to determine the behaviors, total score, and the number of behaviors that differentiate children with ASD from children with developmental delays (DD) and children with typical development (TD) between 18 and 24 months of age. The researchers selected 150 children 18-24 months of age from a general population sample of 6,581 children. Videotapes of the Communication and Symbolic Behavior Scales behavior sample were collected from 60 children later diagnosed with ASD, 30 with DD in which ASD was ruled out, and 60 children with TD. Archived video samples were later reanalyzed using the SORF. The FSU team will present their conclusions that indicated 20 of 29 behaviors on the SORF can meaningfully differentiate children with ASD from children with DD and TD at 18-24 months of age. The findings support previous research showing that early indicators for ASD are present and can be observed in the second year of life. Further validation of the cut-off score is necessary to confirm the utility of the SORF as an interactive screening instrument.

Twin Concordance for Autism: A Comparison of Multiple Diagnostic Criteria in a Population-Based Twin Study
2:30 p.m.
Emily K. Schweigert, M.S., Morton Ann Gernsbacher, Ph.D., Rebecca L. Hefter, M.S., and H. Hill Goldsmith, Ph.D., University of Wisconsin-Madison; Irving I. Gottesman, Ph.D., University of Minnesota

This study identified twin pairs in Wisconsin in which one or both twins had an autism or autism spectrum diagnosis. Pairs in which both twins have a diagnosis are termed "concordant," and those in which only one twin has a diagnosis are termed "discordant." For identical twin pairs, the concordance rate on all four measures (community diagnosis, SCQ, SRS, ADOS) was at least twice that of the fraternal twins. These results suggest a strong role for genetic factors in autism and the autism spectrum. However, unlike the early twin studies of autism, the concordance rates for fraternal twins were not near 0%; neither were the concordance rates for identical twins near 100%. Nevertheless, this study, consistent with other new twin studies that are underway, reaffirms genetic influences for autism and the autism spectrum.


Keynote - What Would "Better" Diagnoses of ASDs Look Like?
8:40 a.m.
Catherine Lord, Ph.D., University of Michigan

Because there is not yet a biological test that indicates autism, these diagnoses must be based on the observations of clinicians and the reports of caregivers and teachers. Due to the variability in ASDs, inexperienced or ill-informed clinicians can make incorrect diagnoses, which can cause hardship for families and significant cost to children and adults with and without ASD. In addition, research to determine causes and effective treatments for ASD is dependent on being able to compare groups of children or adults with ASD across different studies. If participants are chosen whose diagnoses are based on different information, results may be impossible to interpret. This keynote presentation will address how research in ASD has attempted to address these issues by moving in several different directions.

Innovative Technologies for Understanding and Supporting Persons with Autism Spectrum Disorders
9:00 a.m. to 5:30 p.m.

With support from Autism Speaks' Innovative Technology for Autism (ITA) Initiative, this session will provide live demonstrations of innovative technologies that, alone or in conjunction, can be used beneficially in a number of critical areas affecting individuals with ASD, their families, and professionals who strive to better understand and support them. Recent advancements in the areas of video and audio capture technology; computer architecture, hardware, and software; web-based data collection methods; on-body physical and physiological sensing; robotics; virtual reality; and more will be presented, illustrating how this technology can enhance and accelerate the pace of autism research and treatment by providing broader access to professional resources; reducing treatment costs; promoting interventions that increase generalizability of learned skills; and furthering research recruitment, implementation, and data collection and analysis.

Focus ITA Poster (119.22): Computer Software Used to Help Teach Students with Autism to Better Recognize Emotions
9:00 a.m. to 5:30 p.m.
Paul LaCava, M.D., University of Kansas

Individuals with ASD often struggle with recognizing emotions in others and developing peer relationships. Mind Reading: The Interactive Guide to Emotions is a computer program developed to teach emotion recognition. This software was developed and validated at the Autism Research Centre, Cambridge University, UK. Researchers from the Department of Special Education at the University of Kansas have conducted several exploratory studies investigating the effectiveness of Mind Reading. Results of this work suggest that Mind Reading use helped students with ASD to better recognize emotions in the face and voice on computerized tasks. Students who used the software with an adult tutor made the strongest gains. Improved social interaction was also seen when using Mind Reading. However, these results were not strong enough to say that the software use caused the behavior change. It is recommended that a tutor assist students with ASD when they use Mind Reading and provide other supports and teaching to generalize skills.

Factors Associated with Age of Diagnosis among Medicaid-Enrolled Children with Autism Spectrum Disorders in the United States
11:50 a.m.
David Mandell, Sc.D., Knashawn Morales, Sc.D., Ming Xie, M.S. and Daniel Polsky, Ph.D., Psychiatry and Pediatrics,
University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine; Aubyn Stahmer, Ph.D., Child and Adolescent Services Research Center, Rady Children's Hospital; Steven C. Marcus, Ph.D., University of Pennsylvania School of Social Policy and Practice

This study used data from all 50 states and the District of Columbia from 2001 to 2004 to estimate the age of diagnosis of ASD among Medicaid-enrolled children. The sample included only Medicaid-enrolled children age < 9 years who were diagnosed with autism, so that they could compare the results to studies conducted by the CDC. The study showed that African-American children were diagnosed an average of four months later than white children. It is encouraging to note, however, that this difference completely disappeared during the four years of the study. Asian and Latino children were diagnosed, on average, at an earlier age than African-American and white children in all study years, a surprising finding compared with previous studies. The late age of diagnosis is alarming, since autism should be diagnosed before 36 months of age. The average age of diagnosis decreased during the four years of the study, from 72 months in 2001 to 66 months in 2004, suggesting that awareness campaigns are having a positive effect.

Alterations in the Indirect Basal Ganglia Pathway in an Animal Model of Repetitive Behavior
2:50 p.m.
Mark H. Lewis, Ph.D., Psychiatry, University of Florida; Yoko Tanimura, M.S., Psychology, University of Florida; Sasha Vaziri and David Khosrowzadeh, University of Florida

Although restricted repetitive behaviors are diagnostic for autism, little is known about specific brain mechanisms that mediate their development or expression. In this study, they assessed repetitive behavior in deer mice and then measured activation of an important brain region that is part of the indirect motor pathway. They also altered the activity of the indirect pathway by giving mice a drug that either activates or blocks a specific neurotransmitter receptor (adenosine2A) that is expressed in the indirect, but not the direct, pathway. They found that brain activation in the indirect pathway was significantly reduced in mice that showed high levels of repetitive behavior and that the more repetitive behavior exhibited, the lower the level of brain activation. In addition, a drug that increased the activity of the indirect pathway reduced repetitive behavior whereas a drug that further decreased the activity of the indirect pathway exacerbated repetitive behavior. These findings support the hypothesis that spontaneous repetitive behavior in this mouse model is associated with reduced indirect pathway activity. Moreover, specific neurotranmsmitter receptors on the indirect pathway may provide a therapeutic target for the treatment of restricted repetitive behavior in autism.

The Effects of a Randomized Controlled Social Skills Intervention on Peer Relationships and Social Networks of Children with Autism in the School Setting
1:50 p.m.
Connie Kasari, Ph.D., and Jill Locke, Education, UCLA; Amanda Gulsrud, Ph.D., Semel Institute for Neuroscience and Human Behavior, UCLA; Erin Rotheram-Fuller, Ph.D., Temple University

This study reports changes in children's social network ratings and friendships in 12 school-based intervention sessions. Social skills can be taught to children with autism and the best avenue to do so is through a multi-agent model that involves the target child and other typically-developing peers. Targeting only the child with autism did not improve the child's social position in the class or reciprocated friendships suggesting that an adult-mediated one-on-one approach at school may be more stigmatizing to the child, setting him/her apart from his/her classmates. Treatment effects faded somewhat over time for all children suggesting that children likely need continued support in the school setting.


Keynote - Copy Number Variations (CNVs) in Autism: What Do They Mean?
8:40 a.m.
Stephen W. Scherer, Ph.D., The Hospital for Sick Children

Recent discoveries have revealed that in each of our genomes segments of DNA encoding for genes, ranging in size from thousands to millions of nucleotide bases, can vary in copy-number sometimes being present in one, three or even more copies. In a few rare instances both genes are missing altogether. When such copy number variations (CNVs) alter an important gene, set of genes, and/or DNA regulatory elements that might control critical developmental events, specific disorders can arise. Using DNA microarrays (or 'gene-chips') recent studies in autism have identified de novo (DNA changes observed in the child but not parents) and large rare-inherited CNVs in upwards of 5-10% of families examined. The genes affected by these CNVs become candidates for research into autism risk. In fact, so many candidate autism CNVs are now identified that the challenge is to know which ones are truly pathological. This presentation will provide an overview of the CNV-field related to autism including sharing the latest data from our own group and the international Autism Genome Project.

GABAergic and Serotonergic Receptor Alterations in the Fusiform Gyrus in Autism
10:20 a.m.
Adrian Oblak and Gene Blatt, Ph.D., Department of Anatomy and Neurobiology, Boston University School of Medicine; Terrell Gibbs, Ph.D., Pharmacology & Experimental Therapeutics, Boston University School of Medicine

Autism is characterized by deficits in social interaction, language and repetitive behaviors. Face processing, a key component in normal social functioning, enables individuals to identify others and understand the mental state of those individuals. Imaging studies have demonstrated that the fusiform gyrus (FFG), the key area in face identification, is either less activated or normally activated in individuals with autism when compared to controls. They have designed a study to determine if neurobiologically based changes in the FFG could in part contribute to the understanding of the contradictory findings in the imaging literature and the reduced size and number of neurons in the FFG. They conducted a study investigating benzodiazepine binding sites, GABAB receptors, serotonin 1A receptors, and serotonin uptake sites in the fusiform gyrus in adult autism and control brains. In the superficial layers, reductions in benzodiazepine binding sites, GABAB receptors, and serotonin 1A receptors were found in the autistic brains. In the deep layers, reductions were found in all of the binding sites and receptors examined in the autistic brain. Abnormalities in the superficial layers suggest a disruption in cortico-cortical connections, whereas abnormalities in the deep layers suggest abnormal connectivity to other cortical regions, sub-cortical regions, and/or the thalamus. Face recognition and interpretation of expression may be neurobiologically based in the FFG. Significant changes in specific GABA and 5HT receptor subtypes may be contributors to social difficulties in autism.

The International Society for Autism Research (INSAR), created in 2001, is a scientific and professional organization devoted to advancing knowledge about ASDs, including autism, Asperger's syndrome and Pervasive Developmental Disorders-Not Otherwise Specified (PDD-NOS). The Society's main role has been to run the International Meeting for Autism Research (IMFAR), which is an annual scientific meeting to exchange and disseminate new scientific progress among ASD scientists and their trainees. INSAR recently launched a new peer-reviewed journal, Autism Research, to serve both the scientific community and public by rapidly publishing high quality scientific papers to promote advances in this important field of research. To view the journal, visit

Media Contacts:
Jane Rubinstein, Rubenstein Communications (212) 843-8287 / (516) 993-0708
Dana Marnane, Autism Speaks (646) 408-5749 / (212) 252-8650
Adam Pockriss, Rubenstein Communications (212) 843-8286
Sascha Brodsky, Simons Foundation (646) 654-0066

Press Room:
Hilton Chicago, Third Floor
720 South Michigan Avenue, Chicago, Ill.

Media can register via email to or at

Note: Speakers may be subject to change. Consult the program - available at registration.

Autism Speaks

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