Duke Joins Partnership in NIH-Funded Study of Autism Biomarkers in Children

Geraldine Dawson

Duke has joined a Yale School of Medicine-led national multi-center study of preschool and school-aged children with Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD) to identify non-invasive biological markers (biomarkers) that could help physicians diagnose, track, and assess treatments in autism patients.

The study is part of a new four-year, public-private collaboration announced July 20 between the National Institutes of Mental Health (NIMH, a component of the National Institutes of Health), the Foundation for the National Institutes of Health (FNIH), the Simons Foundation Autism Research Initiative (SFARI), and multiple partners and stakeholders. Supported by a $2 million grant from SFARI and managed under the FNIH Biomarkers Consortium, this project is part of a $28 million NIH initiative.

Duke is one of five sites participating in the project. At Duke, the project will be led by Geraldine Dawson, professor of psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences, Pediatrics and director of the Duke Center for Autism and Brain Development.

Led by principal investigator James McPartland, associate professor at the Yale Child Study Center at Yale School of Medicine, the multi-site research team will collect data from children with ASD over a 24-week period and evaluate key facets of social communication in ASD using a number of measures --assessing social function using clinician, caregiver, and lab-based tools, and measuring neurophysiological responses via eye-tracking and electrophysiological (EEG) tests. 

The researchers will also collect blood (DNA) samples from patients with ASD as well as their parents for future genomic analyses. In addition to Duke and Yale, data collection will take occur at Boston Children’s Hospital, University of California at Los Angeles and the University of Washington/Seattle Children’s Research Institute. 

“We are truly excited to carry out this ambitious and important project,” said McPartland. “We will create methods to fundamentally advance treatment research in autism.”

ASD affects early brain development and can present signs and symptoms within the first two years of life. It is estimated that ASD affects 1% of children worldwide. A lack of objective measures of change in social functioning makes it difficult for researchers to develop interventions for the core social impairment of autism.

For more information about the study or to participate, visit www.asdbiomarkers.org, and email asdbiomarkers@yale.edu