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UNC named NIH Autism Center of Excellence for third time

As part of a five-year, $7.5 million award, UNC researchers led by Joseph Piven, MD, will follow up on innovative imaging studies to create interventions to help children with autism.

The National Institutes of Health has awarded nine research grants totaling nearly $100 million over the next five years for the Autism Centers of Excellence (ACE), a program that supports large research projects aimed at understanding and developing interventions for autism spectrum disorder. The ACE program was created in 2007 from the consolidation of previous programs. Grants have been awarded every five years, and 2017 marks the third cycle of ACE grants. UNC-Chapel Hill is one of two lead sites to have earned grants in all three cycles, the other being the University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA). Previous to the ACE awards, UNC was part of the NIH Studies to Advance Autism Research and Treatment (STAART) Centers.

Led by Joseph Piven, MD, the Thomas E. Castelloe Distinguished Professor of Psychiatry in the UNC School of Medicine and director of the Carolina Institute for Developmental Disabilities, the UNC team and colleagues from around the country previously compiled detailed information on brain development and behavior for hundreds of children at high risk for autism and 100 children at low risk. The researchers found that brain growth of infants later diagnosed with autism differed from that of typically developing children. Piven’s network also discovered key differences in brain connections to predict which infants will develop autism. A third studyled by UNC researchers showed that increased infant cerebral spinal fluid is linked to autism diagnoses at age two.

With the new award – $1.5 million per year over five years – Piven’s national network will follow these children through ages 7 to 10 years to determine how their brains change as they grow and how these changes relate to other manifestations of autism risk at school age, including learning problems, other psychiatric disorders, and social development, as well as whether early brain markers can predict the occurrence of these and related problems. They will add data from these studies to longitudinal brain and behavior data from earlier development in these children, as well as extensive genetic and environmental exposure data. Then the researchers will use their findings to examine ways to conceptualize subcategories of autism. The hope is to figure out the best interventions as early as possible for each subcategory of autism.

“Autism spectrum disorder has myriad environmental, genetic, neurological and behavioral components,” said Diana W. Bianchi, MD, director of NIH’s Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD), 1 of 5 institutes funding the ACE program. “These awards will allow us to understand how autism differs in girls versus boys, to develop earlier methods of screening, and to improve treatments based on specific symptoms.”

The NICHD and the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS) are funding the UNC ACE award. For more information on ACE awards, check out the NIH news release.

Joseph Piven is co-chair of the executive committee for the UNC Autism Research Center.

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