Public Release:  Autism Speaks announces Meixner Postdoctoral Fellowships in translational research

Latest funding invests over $600,000 in research focusing on neuroinflammation, genetic interactions, neural biomarkers and novel intervention programs

Autism Speaks

NEW YORK, N.Y. (June 27, 2014) - Autism Speaks, the world's leading autism science and advocacy organization, today announced it has awarded more than $600,000 in funding for six promising scientists pursuing academic training in translational research. The Meixner Postdoctoral Fellowship in Translational Research program invests in rising talent within the autism research community, and is possible thanks to the estate of the late Charles Meixner.

Charles Meixner and his wife, Maria Teresa (née Albear), were personally and profoundly affected by ASD when at age 5 their daughter Caroline was diagnosed with what was then termed profound 'infantile schizophrenia'. "Our family would like to extend our best wishes and appreciation to these bright young researchers as they further our understanding of autism in ways that will positively and directly benefit families," says Meixner family spokesperson Hector de Marchena. "I think Uncle Charles would be enormously gratified to see his gift to the Autism Speaks Translational Research Initiative advance such important research while launching careers with the potential to transform what it means to live with autism."

This year's Meixner class will further Autism Speaks' mission to change the future for all those struggling with autism by bringing together industry, government, the scientific community and the nonprofit sector to advance the development of effective and accessible treatments for ASD and its related medical conditions.

"This class of fellows continues to build upon Autism Speaks' investment into the next generation of autism researchers," says Autism Speaks Chief Science Officer Robert Ring, "while also emphasizing 'bench-to-bedside' approaches to treat the growing number of individuals and families affected by ASD."

The new postdoctoral fellowships include:

  • Brain responses to virtual reality social cognition training in adults with ASD. Daniel Yang, at Yale University, will use magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) and EEG monitoring to study brain responses to a behavioral training program that improves social communication skills in young adults with autism. The goal is to use the findings to make such interventions more effective. Dr. Yang's mentors at Yale include Fred Volkmar and Brent Vander Wyk.
  • PET/MRI investigation of brain inflammation in ASD. Nicole Zurcher Wimmer, at Massachusetts General Hospital, will combine MRI and positron emission tomography (PET) to examine relationships between brain inflammation and brain network connectivity in individuals with autism. Specifically she will look for activation of brain cells known as microglia and astrocytes. This project may identify important biomarkers for one or more subtypes of autism. Dr. Wimmer's mentors at Mass General include Jacob Hooker, Christopher McDougle and Nouchine Hadjikhani.
  • EEG biomarkers of language and literacy abilities in minimally verbal children with ASD. Charlotte DiStefano, at the University of California-Los Angeles, will identify electrophysiological (EEG) biomarkers related to language and literacy abilities in minimally verbal children with autism. Goals include identifying which subgroups will respond best to different types of therapy programs. Dr. DiStefano's mentors at UCLA include Shafali Jeste, Sandra Loo and April Benasich.
  • Discovery and function of gene regulatory networks involving autism risk genes. Jasmine Plummer, at Children's Hospital Los Angeles, will study the expression of genes associated with autism risk at a brain-systems level. She will use gene regulatory network models that capture interactions between genes and their regulators. This promises to generate deeper understanding of the brain networks involved in autism. Dr. Plummer's mentors at Children's Hospital include Pat Levitt and Michele Kipke.
  • Neural synchrony and plasticity in children with autism. Sarah Schipul, at the University of North Carolina, will use EEG readings to compare the synchronization of brain activity in children with or without ASD. In particular, she will examine whether disruptions in brain activity affect behavior and whether such measures can be used to gauge the benefits of potential medicines and other interventions. Dr. Schipul's mentors at UNC include Aysenil Belger and Grace Baranek.
  • Studying and improving social learning in toddlers with ASD using interactive eye tracking. Quan Wang, at Yale University, will use an eye-tracking system to improve our understanding of differences in children's learning styles. This project will also assess whether new intervention programs using this technology can improve attention to social cues. Dr. Wang's mentors at Yale include Frederick Shic and Katarzyna Chawarska.

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Full descriptions of all six abstracts can be found on the Autism Speaks Science Grant Search page at http://science.grants.autismspeaks.org/search/.

About Autism

Autism is a general term used to describe a group of complex developmental brain disorders - autism spectrum disorders - caused by a combination of genes and environmental influences. These disorders are characterized, in varying degrees, by communication difficulties, social and behavioral challenges, and repetitive behaviors. An estimated 1 in 68 children in the U.S. is on the autism spectrum.

About Autism Speaks

Autism Speaks is the world's leading autism science and advocacy organization. It is dedicated to funding research into the causes, prevention, treatments and a cure for autism; increasing awareness of autism spectrum disorders; and advocating for the needs of individuals with autism and their families. Autism Speaks was founded in February 2005 by Suzanne and Bob Wright, the grandparents of a child with autism. Mr. Wright is the former vice chairman of General Electric and chief executive officer of NBC and NBC Universal. Since its inception, Autism Speaks has committed more than $500 million dollars to its mission, the majority in science and medical research. Each year Walk Now for Autism Speaks events are held in more than 100 cities across North America. On the global front, Autism Speaks has established partnerships in more than 40 countries on five continents to foster international research, services and awareness. To learn more about Autism Speaks, please visit AutismSpeaks.org.

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