ATLANTA — An $8.5 million grant from the National Institutes of Health will be used to launch an autism research center that Emory University and other partners say will establish Atlanta as a national leader in exploring the causes of the developmental disorder.
The Autism Center of Excellence will bring together more than 25 researchers and physicians in eight laboratories. Participants include Emory’s pediatrics department, the university’s Yerkes National Primate Research Center and the Marcus Autism Center at Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta. Researchers from Florida State University also will collaborate.
The cooperative, called ACE, will be one of three similar enterprises around the country. The others are in Los Angeles and Boston.
“That’s quite an achievement for the state of Georgia,” said Dr. Ami Klin, an Emory professor of pediatrics and director of the Marcus Autism Center who will lead the new partnership. “But it’s a moment of promise. We must turn that promise into tangible benefit for the children and families affected by autism.”
Autism is a developmental disorder that affects the brain’s normal development of social and communication skills. Symptoms usually appear in toddlers. The cause is not known, though autism is linked to biology and abnormal brain chemistry.
One out of 88 American children is autistic. In Georgia, the ratio is one out of 84.
ACE research will focus on infants and toddlers, including new screening programs in early infancy. Autism is usually diagnosed when children are 18 to 24 months old. Klin, a nationally recognized autism researcher, said he wants to push diagnosis to the first six months of age and develop better treatment models help autistic children develop.
The long-term goal, he said, is to establish diagnosis and treatment practices so that all pediatricians can use them in the routine care of infants.
Klin said he and his colleagues already have conducted clinical and laboratory research to suggest that diagnosis “in the first months of life” is possible. Klin said he hopes that research, which helped anchor his grant application to NIH, will be published in the coming months. He declined to identify the medical journal that is considering publication.
The federal grant money will finance four research projects.
Two will focus on social visual and vocal engagement, with one of those tracking infants from birth. Those efforts build on Klin’s existing research.
A third study, led by a Florida State communications disorders expert, will focus on early treatment.
Yerkes researchers, meanwhile, will study brain chemistry and behavior of rhesus monkeys. The idea is to note any corollaries between those animals’ social engagement and their biology.