Autism Research Comes Together in New Center

Austin and Mason Ludwig

Growing up with his autistic brother Mason lead UNC student Austin Ludwig to the Carolina Institute for Developmental Disabilities and helped chart his academic course. (Photo by Anna Routh Barzin ’07)

Two labs at UNC — led by Mark Zylka and Ben Philpot — have conducted experiments showing how different chemicals, including fungicides, can affect genes linked to autism.

Epidemiologist Julie Daniels ’99 (PhD) created a method to study early life exposure to flame retardants and pollutants, the largest epidemiological study in the world designed to compare children with autism and other developmental delays with people who do not have such delays.

Dr. Joseph Piven’s group at the Carolina Institute for Developmental Disabilities published a wave of scientific papers showing it is possible to predict which high-familial risk infants will develop autism as toddlers. Piven also is one of few researchers in the country studying autism in older people.

Carolina has long been one of the world’s premier autism research universities, and now its expertise and diverse research programs are coming under one virtual roof at the UNC Autism Research Center. More than 100 faculty, students and postdoctoral researchers from 32 departments within five schools currently work on autism-related grants. All will fall under the banner of the new center to focus on autism at all stages of life.

Sam Odom’s and Laura Klinger’s labs are developing behavioral intervention programs for adolescents and young adults focused on improved quality of life in adulthood.

“The research center holds great promise for building on our knowledge about biological causes of autism, the range of characteristics of individuals with autism, behavioral interventions to address development and learning needs, and the most effective interventions matched to the needs of individuals with autism,” said Odom, who is co-chair of the center’s executive committee and director of the Frank Porter Graham Child Development Institute.

While the center will be housed in the School of Medicine, its researchers will span the University, working across all areas of autism research — genetics, development, biomedical and cognitive.

Zylka is director of the UNC Neuroscience Center; Philpot is associate director. Piven, co-chair of the new center’s executive committee, is director of the developmental disabilities institute. Daniels works in the Gillings School of Global Public Health. Klinger directs the UNC TEACCH Autism Program.

“This new center gives us the opportunity to work with basic scientists and clinical researchers on a much deeper level to pursue more targeted and effective interventions,” Klinger said.

One in 68 children in the U.S. is diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder, which is characterized by a wide range of challenges related to communication, social skills and repetitive behaviors. North Carolina’s autism rate is above the national average, with about 65,000 people diagnosed with the condition, which is more common in boys.

One path toward targeted treatments runs through the study of genetics. It could be that different autism symptoms are linked to different genetic subtypes. If so, then addressing underlying genetics might benefit people with autism. For this, basic scientists, clinical researchers, health care professionals and families must work together to figure out the best ways forward.

Research projects that cross traditional research boundaries don’t typically get NIH funding. Zylka said the center will help researchers attract funding for innovative projects, foster new collaborations and ultimately help people with autism and their families.

To fund the start of the center, including the hiring of a program manager, the William R. Kenan Jr. Charitable Trust has committed $100,000 in the center’s first year and a matching gift in the second year contingent on the center raising $200,000.

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