Waisman Center Part Of New Nation-Wide Initiative On Autism

The Waisman Center was awarded $1.6 million by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to participate in a multi-institutional STAART Center (Studies to Advance Autism Research and Treatment Center). Awarded in May and one of eight selected by NIH in the United States, the autism center is led by Boston University School of Medicine and also includes Dartmouth Medical School.

The national STAART Center network brings together leading investigators from a variety of disciplines including the neurosciences, psychiatry, pediatric neurology, psychology, psycholinguistics, social work, and family studies and social policy. The centers will investigate the underlying neurobiological mechanisms of autism, the development of children with the disorder, the impact on the family when a child has autism, and the effects of various interventions.

Director of the Boston/Wisconsin/Dartmouth STAART Center is Helen Tager-Flusberg, Ph.D., of Boston Univeristy, who has conducted research on autism for over 25 years. According to Tager-Flusberg, the number of reported cases of autism is growing. “The establishment of a research center for autism could not have come at a better time,” she says. “The rate of autism diagnoses has increased significantly throughout the world and no one is quite sure why,” says Tager-Flusberg.

Autism is a complex developmental disability that is characterized by abnormalities in brain structure and function and affects an individuals social interaction, communication skills, and patterns of behavior. Occurring in all racial, ethnic, and social groups, autism is four times more prevalent in boys than girls.

Principal investigator of the Waisman Center site is Marsha Mailick Seltzer, Ph.D., School of Social Work and Waisman Center director. Seltzer’s research concerns the manifestation of the symptoms of autism in adolescence and adulthood and its impact on the family.

The key investigator at the Waisman Center is Richard Davidson, Ph.D., Department of Psychology and Psychiatry, and director of the W.M. Keck Lab for Functional Brain Imaging and Behavior. Davidson is investigating the brain circuitry underlying emotion in autism and is the principal investigator of one of the four projects that comprise theBoston/Wisconsin/ Dartmouth STAART Center. Other participants include Hill Goldsmith, Ph.D., and Morton Gernsbacher, Ph.D., both Waisman Center investigators and faculty in the Department of Psychology, who study the early signs and symptoms of autism; and Leonard Abbeduto, Ph.D., chairperson of the Department of Educational Psychology and associate director of the Waisman Center for behavioral sciences, who brings expertise in assessment of children with autism.

The Waisman Center was a natural component of the STAART Center because of its established research programs in the area of autism, its state-of-the art neuroimaging facilities, and clinical and outreach programs for children with autism and their families, according to Seltzer. “The Waisman Center has a strong and abiding commitment to understanding the causes, course, and consequences of autism and related disorders, and we are delighted to be part of the STAART Center network, which promises to result in significant advances and treatments of this highly prevalent developmental disorder,” says Seltzer.

Other STAART Centers are based at the University of Washington, UCLA, University of Rochester, Kennedy Krieger Institute, Mt. Sinai Medical School, University of North Carolina/Chapel Hill, and Yale University. NIH expects to spend $65 million over five years for the eight centers.