National Institutes of Health will intensify its efforts to find the causes of autism and identify new treatments for the disorder, through a new research program.
The Autism Centers of Excellence (ACE) program represents a consolidation of two existing programs, the Studies to Advance Autism Research and Treatment (STAART) and Collaborative Programs of Excellence in Autism (CPEA) programs into a single research effort.
"The consolidation was needed to capitalize on the gains made by the NIH research effort in autism," said Elias Zerhouni, M.D., Director of the National Institutes of Health. NIH autism program officials hope to expand on earlier discoveries made by research previously supported by the NIH.
The NIH Institutes providing funding and expertise for the effort are the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, the National Institute of Deafness and other Communication Disorders, the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, the National Institute of Mental Health and the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke.
Autism is a complex brain disorder involving communication and social difficulties as well as repetitive behavior or narrow interests. Autism is often grouped with similar disorders, all of which may be referred to collectively as autism spectrum disorders (ASD). The underlying causes of ASD are unclear. Currently, there is no cure for the disorders and treatments are limited.
The ACE program will encompass research centers and research networks. The research centers will foster collaborations between teams of specialists, who share the same facility so that they can address a particular research problem in depth. For example, specialists in brain imaging might collaborate with behavior researchers to determine if a particular behavior is associated with a difference in brain structure. They might also consult with a team of genetics experts to find a hereditary basis for their observations.
ACE networks consist of researchers at many facilities in locations throughout the country, all of whom work together on a single research question. Because networks encompass multiple sites, they can recruit large numbers of participants with a particular disorder.
Initially, five centers and two networks received funding in 2007 to study ASD. Funding for a second set of ACE research programs will be announced in 2008.
All ACE award recipients will contribute their data to the National Database for Autism Research (NDAR). Housed at NIH, NDAR is a Web-based tool that autism researchers around the world can use to collect and share information on autism.