Marcus Autism Center Receives Autism Center of Excellence Designation from National Institutes of Health (NIH)

ATLANTA – The National Institutes of Health (NIH) has renewed the designation of Marcus Autism Center, a subsidiary of Children's Healthcare of Atlanta, as a national Autism Center of Excellence (ACE), including an $11 million, five-year research grant. Only five institutions in the United States are designated ACE centers in the highly competitive program, which supports large-scale multidisciplinary studies of autism spectrum disorder (ASD), with the goal of identifying causes and best treatments. Marcus Autism Center is also a subsidiary of the Emory University School of Medicine Department of Pediatrics.

“The renewal of our ACE award, which we first received in 2012, is an acknowledgment from the NIH of the groundbreaking results achieved by our dedicated research and clinical teams over the first five years of our ACE program,” said Ami Klin, PhD, Director of Marcus Autism Center, Georgia Research Alliance Eminent Scholar and Professor of Pediatrics at Emory University.

“Our success in delineating the genetic, neural and behavioral mechanisms of autism, the promise of future discoveries that can positively impact the lives of children and their families, and this designation and support from the NIH would not be possible without the unique partnership among Marcus Autism Center, Emory University  and Children’s,” Dr. Klin said. “We also owe our success to the strong support of community members, such as Bernie Marcus and The Marcus Foundation, Joseph B. Whitehead Foundation and Georgia Research Alliance.”

One in 68 children in the United States, and 1 in 64 in Georgia, are living with autism. As the largest center in the United States for clinical care of autism, Marcus Autism Center treats more than 5,000 children each year, offering families clinical care in diagnosis, language and learning, severe behavior and feeding disorders. The Marcus Autism Center team evaluates and diagnoses nearly 1,000 children a year and directs patients to appropriate services. Early intervention is essential, as children learn and acquire skills more rapidly early in life while the brain is still developing.

Through pioneering research in the first five years of the ACE designation, investigators at Marcus Autism Center and Emory University have shown that developmental deviations in social communication can be identified as early as 2 months old, well before reliable clinical diagnoses of autism. These findings resulted from a robust research program, including Emory University, Yerkes National Primate Research Center, Florida State University and collaborators across the United States. For example, their July 2017 publication in the journal Nature demonstrated that these developmental deviations are under genetic control, bridging molecular studies to behavior.

The new ACE grant will expand on previous work by encompassing the center’s most advanced science to date, focusing on behavior and brain studies of babies from birth, as well as infant monkeys from birth. Projects supported by the new grant span genes to neighborhoods, aiming to generate new scientific discoveries, and ultimately leading to a new community-based system of healthcare delivery for infants and toddlers with autism and their families.

“Our goal is to change the narrative of autism from one of potentially devastating disability to one of positive diversity, in which individuals with autism are able to succeed despite their learning differences and because of their unique assets,” Dr. Klin said. “We believe the scientific work funded by this grant will have the power to favorably disrupt the current state of early detection and intervention in autism, and has the power to achieve improvements in developmental trajectories with lifelong implications.”

The new ACE grant to Marcus Autism Center includes five individual research projects:

Project 1: Social Visual Engagement in Infants

Led by investigators Warren Jones, PhD, Research Director, and Sarah Shultz, PhD, Assistant Professor at Emory University, this project builds on recent research showing those the way in which infants visually explore, engage with, learn from and adapt to their surrounding world is tightly connected to genetic variation. New studies will build on these findings to study pivotal transitions in early infancy that set the stage for future attainment of social-communication milestones.

Project 2: Spoken Communication Between Infants and Caregivers

Five years of research in the first ACE grant provided compelling evidence for a causal link between early deficits in social engagement and later deficits in speech and language in infants at risk of autism. This project reaches across every stage of vocal development, beginning in the first months of life, and includes developmental progressions in vocal behavior in infants and caregivers that are disrupted in autism. A team led by Gordon Ramsay, PhD, Assistant Professor at Emory University, and Dr. Klin will continue research into treatments targeting social interactions between infants and caregivers that could more effectively promote speech development than treatments targeting speech development in the infant alone.

Project 3: Neuroimaging of Infant Brain Development

Investigators Dr. Shultz, Dr. Jones and Longchuan Li, PhD, Assistant Professor at Emory University, will map transitions in brain and behavior over the first six months of life in infants at high- and low-risk for autism. The study builds on earlier results showing that looking at the eyes of others is already in decline in the first six months of life in infants with autism. The investigators will further explore the mechanisms behind findings that infants with autism exhibit a slight increase in eye-movement at two months that later declines, meaning reflex-like predispositions for looking may be initially present but are not integrated into social interaction as the brain matures.

Project 4: New Treatment Models for Infants

Using innovative web-based technology, researchers, led by Amy Wetherby, will teach parents to identify early social communications milestones and support their children’s early development through a behavioral intervention. The results will be measured to identify and optimize opportunities for learning and to improve outcomes.

Project 5: Model System of Social Behavior

Investigators Jocelyne Bachevalier, Dr. Jones and Mar Sanchez will conduct research with nonhuman primate infants living with their mothers in social groups at the Yerkes National Primate Research Center Field Station. Studies based on earlier ACE research will include behavioral and neural measures similar to those used in human infants to characterize social visual engagement and neuromotor development, including a focus on mother-infant reciprocal behaviors. The studies will help with assessment of how genetic variations alter social development and evaluation of potential therapeutic treatments.

The ACE grant also will promote education and training to disseminate best practices to primary care providers, and to present relevant and empowering information to affected families and the community at large.

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About Marcus Autism Center

Marcus Autism Center is a not-for-profit organization and a subsidiary of Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta that treats more than 5,000 children with autism and related disorders a year. As one of the largest autism centers in the U.S., Marcus Autism Center offers families access to the latest research, comprehensive evaluations and intensive behavior treatments. With the help of research grants, community support and government funding, Marcus Autism Center aims to maximize the potential of children with autism today and transform the very nature of autism for future generations.

About Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta

As the only freestanding pediatric healthcare system in Georgia, Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta is the trusted leader in caring for kids. The not-for-profit organization’s mission is to make kids better today and healthier tomorrow through more than 60 pediatric specialties and programs, top healthcare professionals, and leading research and technology. Children’s is one of the largest pediatric clinical care providers in the country, managing more than one million patient visits annually at three hospitals, Marcus Autism Center, the Center for Advanced Pediatrics, urgent care centers and neighborhood locations. Consistently ranked among the top children’s hospitals by U.S. News & World Report, Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta has impacted the lives of kids in Georgia, across the United States and around the world for more than 100 years thanks to generous support from the community.

About the Robert W. Woodruff Health Sciences Center of Emory University

The Robert W. Woodruff Health Sciences Center of Emory University is an academic health science and service center focused on missions of teaching, research, health care and public service. Its components include schools of medicine, nursing, and public health; Yerkes National Primate Research Center; the Emory Winship Cancer Institute; and Emory Healthcare, the largest, most comprehensive health system in Georgia.

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