Samira Sayeh

Samira Sayeh, assistant professor of French and Italian, specializes in Francophone literature and culture and the history of countries other than France that speak the language. Read More

Center for autism research awards pilot grants

The Kansas Center for Autism Research and Training has awarded its first pilot Discovery Grants to researchers from KU, Children's Mercy Hospital and the University of Missouri-Kansas City School of Medicine.

Pilot projects explore promising new directions in research and data from such studies are often critical to winning external support— but funding for pilot projects is increasingly scarce.

Launched in July 2008 with the help of a $1 million bequest by Wanda and Thomas Pyle of Chase County, the center, known as K-CART, pledged to support intramural pilot projects to attract younger scientists and new collaborations between established investigators to autism spectrum disorder research. The Pyle gift leveraged a commitment from KU and KUMC for a five-year $1 million contribution from Provost and Executive Vice Chancellor Richard Lariviere and Executive Vice Chancellor Barbara Atkinson.

The award winners competed for the $25,000-$40,000 grants that recognize original empirical research that advances scientific knowledge and contribute to the overall competitiveness of K-CART for government and private funding.

"The awardees exemplify collaboration among disciplines and across campuses to address the complexities and challenges in autism spectrum disorders," said Debra Kamps, K-CART director.

A Discovery Grant will enable Kathryn Ellerbeck and Jill Jacobson to explore the possible effects of hormones and the environmental toxin Bisphenol A, known as BPA, on the expression of genes that may be related to autism. BPA, widely used in food packaging and other consumer products, has been in the headlines in 2008 because of increasing safety concerns by government agencies including the National Institutes of Health In a report released in October.

In earlier research, Ellerbeck and Jacobson found evidence of increased expression of two genes that control the expression of G-proteins. G-proteins are important for transmitting signals from neurotransmitters like oxytocin, serotonin and dopamine from the cell surface into the cell. One of the genes is one of a number of genes known to be "imprinted.” Imprinting refers to the chemical modification of the DNA that affects how or whether those genes are turned on. Imprinting defects are known to be important in syndromes often associated with symptoms of autism, including Rett Syndrome, Prader-Willi syndrome and Fragile X syndrome.

The researchers hypothesize that exposure of the fetus to abnormal levels of hormones in the womb can permanently alter imprinting and how genes are turned off and on as the brain develops. If normally silenced genes are switched on, the result may be abnormal nerve signaling and autism.

Ellerbeck and Jacobson, both physician-researchers, have a cross-institution collaboration representing KUMC, Children's Mercy Hospital and the University of Missouri-Kansas City School of Medicine. Ellerbeck is a developmental-behavioral pediatrician at KUMC’s Center for Child Health and Development with expertise in the diagnosis and management of children with autism. Jacobson is a professor of pediatrics/endocrinology at the University of Missouri-Kansas City School of Medicine and a member of the Endocrinology and Diabetes Department at Children’s Mercy Hospital and Clinics.

Cary Savage, associate professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at KUMC, Christa Anderson, doctoral student in cognitive psychology at KU Lawrence and John Colombo, professor of psychology and KU Life Span Institute director, will explore pupil and neural responses in children with ASD. The project expands on previous findings that showed that the pupils of children with ASD decreased when viewing images of the human face conducted by Anderson and Colombo. Savage, who is the director of functional MRI at KUMC's Hoglund Brain Imaging Center, is partnering with them so the researchers can measure responses of the pupils and corresponding brain regions of eight 10-year-old children with ASD to face and non-face photos. The long-term research goal is to identify the primary source of ASD neural impairment.

Assistant Research Professor Kathy Thiemann-Bourque will continue her promising research into increasing communication of children with ASD with their typical peers. About one-third to one-half of children with ASD do not develop functional speech. Alternative and augmentative communication, or AAC, systems allow these children to give and receive messages but are mostly used in communication between an adult and a child. Theimann-Bourque has developed a "script" of text and graphic cues that will teach preschool children with ADS and their typical peers to communicate with each other using an AAC system.

Winnie Dunn, professor and chair of the Department of Occupational Therapy Education at KUMC, will conduct an innovative study to identify and validate methods for behavioral assessment that reflect brain activity of individuals with ASD focusing on sensory processing, temperament and brain activity. She will collect data to apply for two federal grants for a larger study and a series of intervention studies that identify which children are more receptive to specific interventions based on their neurobehavioral patterns.

K-CART is one of the 13 centers of the Life Span Institute at KU that supports research and training on human and community development, disabilities and aging.

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