UCLA Health System has an excellent reputation for autism research. The latest recognition for the UCLA Center for Autism Research comes in the form of multiple awards from the National Institutes of Health (NIH). The awards are in recognition of UCLA’s preeminence in both research and clinical care of children with autism. The UCLA Center for Autism Research and Treatment (CART) was the only NIH Autism Centers of Excellence (ACE) center in the nation to be awarded renewed funding for the next five years. This continued funding will support ongoing research to examine how genes link to behavior, develop new clinical interventions for those severely affected, and seek to explain why there are more boys than girls with autism. The goal of the research is to understand the full range of Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASDs), which cause a continuum of social deficits, communication difficulties, and cognitive delays.
UCLA’s CART will receive $10 million for its ongoing research into advancing treatments, ASD’s genetics and biology, as well as developing improved diagnostic tools. New research will link genetic mutations to distinct patterns of brain development, structure, and function in children and adolescents with ASD. The research project is under the direction of Susan Bookheimer, PhD, the Joaquin Fuster Professor of Cognitive Neurosciences at UCLA’s Semel Institute for Neuroscience and Human Behavior.
The UCLA Center notes that it is unique in its extent of expertise, spanning treatment, research, genetics, brain imaging, and early detection methods. Dr. Bookheimer explained, “We are very pleased to receive this additional funding to continue our investigation into the relationship between aberrant brain development and core deficits in autism. With this award, we will now begin to track children from infants to adolescents who have multiple risks for autism, and follow them over time in order to understand the trajectory of this disorder.”
Dr. Bookheimer and Dr. Dan Geschwind, the director of CART, also lead a team of CART researchers, together with colleagues from Harvard University and the University of Washington, on a new ACE Network grant awarded to Yale University. They note that theirs joint effort will seek to understand why ASD are almost five times more common among boys (1 in 54) than among girls (1 in 252). They will study a larger sample of girls with autism than has been studied previously, with a focus on genes, brain function, and behavior throughout childhood and adolescence. Another goal is to identify the causes of ASD and develop new treatments.
The NIH supplied another large cash infusion to CART member Connie Kasari, professor of education and psychiatry at the Semel Institute for Neuroscience and Human Behavior; she is a leader in the development of new treatments for ASD. Her team has received $15 million to establish a new ACE network award to compare two types of intensive daily instruction for children with ASD who use only minimal verbal communication. Earlier research has shown that even after early language-skills training, about one-third of school aged children with ASD remain minimally verbal. This research network will enroll 200 children in four cities–Los Angeles, Nashville, Tennessee, New York, NY, and Rochester, NY. Dr. Kasari explained, “We are grateful for this award because it will not only allow us to compare two different forms of interventions designed to improve communication, but will also involve parental interactions to enhance treatment. Because parents play such a critical role in their children’s development, the hope is that the combined efforts of the clinician and the parent will result in better social outcomes for the child.”
“We are very pleased with both the ACE Center renewal award as well as the other ACE awards to our CART research team,” added Dr. Geschwind, who is also the Gordon and Virginia MacDonald Distinguished Chair in Human Genetics, and professor of neurology and psychiatry. He also holds an ACE network grant to study the genetic underpinnings of language and social communication in children with ASD. He noted, “Our ACE Center was the only existing one in the country to receive renewed funding; this is a testament to CART’s research and clinical expertise that enables us to continue in this tough economic environment. We clearly have the optimal combination of world leading researchers and a collaborative environment that permits us to continue to perform the most innovative, multidisciplinary research in autism and related disorders in the country.”
The UCLA Center for Autism Research and Treatment (CART) provides diagnoses, and conducts research, family counseling, clinical trials, and treatment for individuals with ASD. CART was initially established in 2003 as one of eight centers in the NIH-funded Studies to Advance Autism Research and Treatment network (STAART).In 2007, UCLA became one of six centers, and one of five networks, in the ACE research program funded by the National Institutes of Health (NIH). Other members of the CART team include Dr. James McCracken, Campbell Professor of Child Psychiatry and director of the Division of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry; Mirella Dapretto, professor of psychiatry; and Scott Johnson, professor of psychology.
CART is part of the Semel Institute for Neuroscience and Human Behavior at UCLA, an interdisciplinary research and education institute devoted to the understanding of complex human behavior, including the genetic, biological, behavioral, and sociocultural underpinnings of normal behavior, and the causes and consequences of neuropsychiatric disorders. In addition to conducting fundamental research, the institute faculty seeks to develop effective strategies for prevention and treatment of neurological, psychiatric, and behavioral disorders, including improvement in access to mental health services and the shaping of national health policy.