The National Institutes of Health (NIH) is initiating an all-out effort to uncover the genetic and neurobiological roots of autism, a mysterious developmental disorder that affects about 400,000 Americans.
Although autism's hallmark symptoms--social withdrawal, speech problems, and repetitive behaviors--were first described 50 years ago, there is no biological test for the disease. Moreover, researchers have only recently made progress toward finding a genetic link (Science, 9 May, p. 905 ). To step up the pace of autism research, NIH says it will fund a $27 million, 5-year effort to study several hundred autism families in five countries. The project, set to start right away, will involve researchers at 24 universities who will search the families' genomes for autism genes, study brain structure in autism patients, test proposed treatments, and explore biological mechanisms in animals.
"I think it's a wonderful idea to make a kind of frontal assault," says one participant, Helen Tager-Flusberg, a cognitive neuroscientist at the Eunice Kennedy Shriver Center in Waltham, Massachusetts. An advantage of the project, she says, is that while individual studies will differ at each university, all will use the same questionnaires, cognitive tests, neuroimaging methods, and other protocols. Thus, she says, their results can easily be compared.
The new project--the largest single chunk of money ever for autism research--comes after a request from Congress. At the urging of a parents' group called the Autism Society of America, the Senate and House appropriations committees directed NIH to hold a conference 2 years ago on the state of autism research. The conferees recommended the autism initiative, and NIH obliged. Says John Maltby, who chairs the society's foundation, "We're very pleased."