Dr. Daniel Geschwind (Santa Monica), UCLA assistant professor of neurology, has received a five-year, $6 million grant from the National Institute of Mental Health to expand scientific and community groups’ efforts to identify the genes that cause autism.
Geschwind and his UCLA colleagues will direct the project, in partnership with the citizens’ group Cure Autism Now, to add 300 more families to Cure Autism Now’s Autism Genetic Resource Exchange (AGRE) gene bank. They will share the information and samples gathered in the study with the research community through AGRE and a repository maintained by the National Institute of Mental Health Human Genetics Initiative.
“This project will break frontiers in the scope of its collaboration and data sharing with the entire scientific community,” said Geschwind, a member of the Center for Neurobehavioral Genetics at UCLA’s Neuropsychiatric Institute. “We hope it will also create a promising model for other genetic studies, in order to speed identification of important genes and unlock the mysteries of autism and other devastating hereditary disorders.”
The Cure Autism Now Foundation created the AGRE gene bank in order to advance genetics research on autism. AGRE collects DNA samples and clinical data from families with more than one member diagnosed with one of three genetically related diseases: autism, pervasive developmental disorder (PDD) and Asperger’s syndrome.
Autism begins in early childhood, impairing thought, feelings, language and the ability to relate to others. While its causes and effective treatments have eluded science, evidence suggests that the disorder is highly heritable. Researchers suspect the disease stems from interactions among multiple unknown genes — complicating the challenge to pinpoint its origin. Recent genome scans have identified several chromosomal sites that may harbor genes possibly predisposing individuals to the disease.
Geschwind is director of UCLA’s Neurogenetics Program — a group of clinical scientists and neurologists who apply molecular genetic methods to understand the basic mechanisms of neurological disease and to care for their patients. His National Institute of Mental Health collaborators include Drs. Stanley Nelson, Rita Cantor and Kenneth Lange from UCLA; Dr. J. Conrad Gilliam from Columbia University; and Drs. Christa Lese and David Ledbetter from the University of Chicago.