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Autism Speaks Grants to Fund Epigenetic Studies

By a GenomeWeb staff reporter

NEW YORK (GenomeWeb News) – Researchers using epigenomics approaches to study autism have won three of the 14 new pilot grants awarded by Autism Speaks, the non-profit foundation said Thursday.

These epigenetics and gene-environment studies won nearly $360,000 from the foundation, which evaluated more than 105 applicants for the pilot program for their innovation, research strategies, and their relevance to autism research. All three of these grants were for two years and were roughly $120,000.

Schahram Akbarian of the Brudnick Neuropsychiatric Institute will use the grant to study epigenetic activation of the prefrontal cortex during development. The research will aim to clarify whether epigenetic markings are dynamically regulated in human neuronal chromatin, and could provide a framework for intervention studies that are focused on at-risk subjects.

Jessica Connelly of the University of Virginia will use the grant to examine epigenetics and the oxytocin pathway in animal models. Connelly wants to build on research that has found that autism spectrum disorder (ASD) genomes are more heavily methylated at the gene for the OT receptor, which suggests that behavioral and neural systems at the core of ASD could be affected epigenetically by experience. She will develop animal models by testing the role of experiences in the first week of life to epigenetic programming of the genes for OT and its receptor.

Beate St. Pourcain of the University of Bristol will study genetic risk factors for autism that interact with environmental exposures during childhood development. This research will focus on using genome-wide association study data to identify genetic causes for autism in neurotypical children, children who have autistic-like traits but have not been diagnosed with autism. This approach could aid in the study of joint effects of genetic and environmental risk factors in ASD, and could provide insight into how these risk factors could be lessened or alleviated.

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