Pitt Autism Center of Excellence Receives $9.6 Million NIH Grant

Issue Date: 
January 7, 2008

The University of Pittsburgh’s Center for Excellence in Autism Research has been named an Autism Center of Excellence (ACE) by the National Institutes of Health.

The prestigious and highly competitive award comes with $9.6 million of funding over five years for the autism research program led by Nancy Minshew, ACE director and professor of psychiatry and neurology in the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine. Pitt’s center is one of only five ACEs in the nation.

Minshew said the funding will aid ACE researchers in their quest to “identify the earliest signs of autism and their underlying mechanisms. This will help us to diagnose the disorder sooner and develop treatments earlier.”

Autism is a complex brain disorder that inhibits a person’s ability to communicate and develop social relationships. It is often accompanied by extreme behavioral challenges. Autism is often grouped with similar disorders referred to informally as autism spectrum disorders and formally as pervasive developmental disorders.

Although research over the past 15 years has provided insights into autism spectrum disorders, the underlying causes are unknown. Autism is the fastest-growing developmental disability, now affecting one in every 150 births around the world. Current treatments help some but not all.

“We hope we will know at the end of five years about what to look for in the first years of life. Then we can educate pediatricians and families,” Minshew said.

The research “will help us to understand critical differences in how people with autism solve problems and reason. These studies also will provide the resources to enable us to find the genes contributing to autism and their impact on the individual variability that characterizes this disorder,” she added.

The ACE program represents a consolidation of two Pitt programs, the Collaborative Programs of Excellence in Autism and the Studies to Advance Autism Research and Treatment, which includes researchers from Carnegie Mellon University. Along with Pitt and Carnegie Mellon scientists, the ACE award also involves researchers from Duquesne University.

The research being conducted within the ACE will focus on the differences in the thought processes of people with autism and in how the brain thinks and develops, including how faces and face emotion are recognized, how language is understood, how decisions are made, and how problems solved.

These issues will be studied in 4-month-old infants with an older sibling diagnosed with autism; 16-month-olds to 4-year-olds of all ability levels who are thought to have or were just diagnosed with autism or autism spectrum disorder; and 5- to 55-year-olds with autism who are verbal and have IQ scores between 80 and 120.

Volunteers are being accepted. For information, call 412-246-5485 or e-mail autismrecruiter@upmc.edu.