CHAPEL HILL – The National Institutes of Health has awarded $100 million over the next five years to support nine Autism Centers of Excellence (ACEs), which lead multi-institutional research projects to understand and develop interventions for autism spectrum disorder (ASD).
Created in 2007, the ACE program is renewed every five years. The UNC-Chapel Hill ACE, led by Joe Piven, MD, director of the Carolina Institute for Developmental Disabilities (CIDD), is the only one of the nine to have been funded for four consecutive grant cycles. Prior to the ACE program, UNC-Chapel Hill received a STAART (Studies to Advance Autism Research and Treatment) Center grant from the NIH in 2003.
With this new 5-year, $12-million ACE grant, the Infant Brain Imaging Study (IBIS) Network will examine brain and behavior development in a group of 400 children (300 of whom are at high familial likelihood of ASD). The children entered this study as infants, before the typical age of onset of ASD and are now entering adolescence, which is the time of onset for most adult psychiatric disorders. The researchers will continue documenting the trajectories of brain and behavior development, from infancy through adolescence, in those with ASD as well as those at high likelihood for ASD who develop other psychiatric conditions that are genetically related to ASD.
“We are excited to be able to conduct this longitudinal study from early infancy through middle adolescence,” said Piven, the Thomas E. Castelloe Distinguished Professor of Psychiatry and Pediatrics at the UNC School of Medicine. “We have learned an incredible amount throughout IBIS, and we are poised to learn more about brain and behavior trajectories from infancy through adolescence, providing insight relevant to early interventions for ASD and related psychiatric conditions. This unique situation of continuous funding of the same cohort is the only way we could accomplish such a study.”
This study will also focus on determining the early brain and behavior manifestations of ASD in females, who often present with different autism symptom patterns and are frequently diagnosed later than males.
Over several years, Piven’s team at CIDD has made groundbreaking discoveries in the field of autism, using innovative imaging and computer analysis techniques to document key brain differences in babies who go on to develop autism as toddlers.
In May of 2022, CIDD member Jessica Girault, PhD, assistant professor of psychiatry, led research using magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) to document crucial differences in the visual processing systems in the brains of infants who went on to be diagnosed with autism. She showed that these differences are associated with inherited genetic factors within families.
In March of 2022, CIDD researchers led by Piven, Mark Shen, PhD, and Heather Hazlett, PhD, were the first to demonstrate overgrowth of the amygdala in the first year of life, before babies show most of the behavioral symptoms that later consolidate into a diagnosis of autism. This overgrowth may be unique to autism, as babies with fragile X syndrome show a different brain growth pattern, according to this research.
Shen led earlier MRI research showing for the first time that babies who went on to develop autism had increased amounts of cerebrospinal fluid around the brain compared to a group of typically developing children.
In 2017, Piven, Hazlett and colleagues were the first to image the brains of infants, and then use brain measurements and a computer algorithm to accurately predict which babies would go on to develop autism as toddlers.
All are members of the UNC Autism Research Center.
“These studies and several others we’ve conducted with colleagues across the country have taught us so much about brain development of infants before they show any signs of autism,” Piven said. “We are confident our efforts will help our colleagues create new interventions to help children and their families. We could not do this kind of research without these families’ dedication to research.”
The ACE program is supported by NIH’s Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, National Institute of Mental Health, National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders, National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, and National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences. Read more about the latest ACE funding at the NIH website.