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UR Awarded $7.5 Million to Investigate Autism Treatment

Studies to Focus on Diet, Behavioral Therapy, Genetic Links

Wednesday, May 21, 2003

Already a national leader in autism research due to the late-1990s discovery of a critical genetic link, the University of Rochester Medical Center is among eight institutions in the United States selected to study treatments for this early childhood brain disorder.

The $7.5 million, five-year National Institutes of Health grant will fund studies in diet and intensive behavioral therapy, with related investigations into neurobiology and genetics. The NIH initiative, announced this month, is called STAART (Studies to Advance Autism Research and Treatment.)

With awareness of autism on the rise, the funding demonstrates a belief by physicians, researchers, mental-health experts and parents of children with autism that a broad, scientific review of treatments is needed to determine which ones are most effective. There is no cure for autism, although many children do respond to therapy.

"Autism treatment is very expensive financially and emotionally - and no single approach works for all children," says Patricia M. Rodier, Ph.D., and principal investigator on the UR project. "That’s why it is so important to answer the big questions: ‘Who is going to respond? And to what treatment?’ If we could predict in advance which children would benefit from available treatments and which would not, children could be matched to the best treatments available."

Autism is a life-long brain disorder that’s usually diagnosed by age three when a child does not seem to pass the typical milestones between infancy and the toddler years. Children with autism lack language skills, have difficulty with social interactions, and often display odd, repetitive behaviors. However, people with autism do not always share the same symptoms or deficits, so experts classify it as a "spectrum disorder" with forms from mild to severe. Experts estimate that one in 200-300 children have autism spectrum disorders.

The UR’s latest research is designed to test two treatments:

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