University of Texas at Southwestern Medical School in Dallas is one of a group of influential research institutes involved in launching “It Takes Brains,” a new registration website recently announced by the Simons Foundation, Autism Speaks, and the Autism Science Foundation. The website will be part of the Autism BrainNet academic site conglomerate, of which UT Southwestern is an inaugural member, and will help collect, store, and distribute material for researchers focused on autism research.
The website is expected to help in the gathering of academic and technical material to identify and understand differences in autistic behavior and human brain structure and functioning, in turn providing new insights into the disorder, thus aiding future research and a possible treatment.
“Studies on brain tissue represent the best way for researchers to gain a deeper understanding of the genetic, cellular and molecular causes of autism spectrum disorder,” said Dr. David Amaral of the University of California MIND Institute and Director of the Autism BrainNet. “This research takes us important steps closer to effective treatments that will lessen disability for affected individuals.”
Research on autism is facilitated by brain tissue donations from individuals who have the disorder, but the effort to collect such samples has suffered from a shortage of contributions. Previous research has shown that autistic brains are structurally different in the number and size of neurons. There are also mutations in the gene expression. Researchers have also hypothesized that a autism presents with higher levels of inflammation in the brain compared to the brains of people who do not suffer from the disorder. However, these results and hypotheses lack adequate replication due to the shortage of samples.
“Autism BrainNet will allow researchers to replicate previous findings using new, better-characterized and larger sets of tissue. Human brain structure and function is the key to understanding behavior — and identifying differences in the brains of individuals with autism is essential for advancing our understanding of autistic behaviors,” explained Marta Benedetti, Senior Scientist at the Simons Foundation Autism Research Initiative.
The Autism Speaks’ Autism Tissue Program (ATP), launched in 1998, will also begin to work with Autism BrainNet. The aim of the program is to provide brain tissue to scientists. “The launch of Autism BrainNet enables us to continue this mission, expand the number of available collection sites, and represents an unprecedented investment ensuring that researchers have access to the brain tissue they need to answer the big questions about autism,” noted Autism Speaks chief science officer Robert Ring.
Another important initiative that It Takes Brains will focus on is educating families affected by autism, in order to increase not only knowledge, but also donations. People who register on the website will receive updates about the progress made in both of these efforts.
In addition to University of Texas at Southwestern Medical School in Dallas, other inaugural members of the Austism BrainNet and contributors to the new site include the Harvard University/Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston, the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in New York City, and the University of California MIND Institute in Sacramento. The organization expects that other institutions will also join the initiative in the future. To be a member, each site will have to sign a standard protocol for clinical data and brain attainment, preparation, garner, and allocation to investigators.
The term “autism” describes a set of brain disorders caused by genetic and environmental causes and characterized by communicational, social, and behavioral difficulties and repetitive behaviors. In the U.S., it’s estimated that 1 in 68 children have autism.