NEWS | January 11, 2013

MIND Institute researchers receive grants from Autism Speaks


Two internationally respected UC Davis MIND Institute researchers have received grants from Autism Speaks, a national autism advocacy and science organization, to study autism from two different perspectives.

Sally Ozonoff Sally Ozonoff

Endowed Professor in the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences Sally Ozonoff has received a three-year, $450,000 grant to develop a new, video-based method of identifying autism in very young children.

Ozonoff will collaborate with a company that produces software for families of children with autism to develop and pilot a new video-based autism screening measure, the Video-Referenced Infant Rating System for Autism, or VIRSA. The tool will be a secure, confidential website where parents can view videos depicting children with the condition, selecting those that show behaviors that are most like their child’s.

The research is aimed at creating a tool that can help identify autism risk at a younger age, offering the opportunity for intervention before full-symptom onset. The new measure has potential for much wider use than existing measures, which rely upon visits to health care providers. Since the VIRSA is intended for Internet administration, it will be of lower cost than tests that require clinic visits, as well as being immediately accessible, rather than requiring the lengthy waits for appointments that are typical of most clinics.

“When we interview parents about their child’s development, we may ask ‘Does your baby do that?’ and we sometimes have difficulty conveying what we mean,” Ozonoff said. “But when we show them a video they immediately recognize the behavior and are better able to answer. We think that using video will make the process of early screening easier for parents than relying on written descriptions of behavior alone.”

Ater it is developed, Ozonoff and her colleagues will study VIRSA’s use by administering it three times — at 6, 12 and 18 months — to parents of infants who are at a familial risk of autism spectrum disorder. The study will examine the measure’s accuracy by comparing its results with already established autism screening tools.

Jacqueline Crawley, Robert E. Chason Endowed Chair in Translational Research in the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences, has received a one-year, $94,000 equipment grant from Autism Speaks for the start-up of a new preclinical initiative to discover pharmacological compounds effective in treating the diagnostic symptoms of autism.

Jackie Crawley
Jacqueline Crawley

The grant will establish the first phase of the Preclinical Autism Consortium for Therapeutics, or PACT, which will test compounds in genetic mouse and rat models of autism, for reversal of autism-relevant behaviors and physiology. 

Crawley will test potential new medications in mice with mutations in genes associated with autism that display behaviors analogous to the core symptoms of autism, such as abnormal social behavior, reduced vocalization, repetitive self-grooming, stereotyped circling and anxiety-like behaviors, among other features. PACT, a multicenter consortium initiated in collaboration with the leadership of Autism Speaks, includes two other founding Principal Investigators.

Richard Paylor, a colleague at Baylor College of Medicine, will conduct analogous behavioral assays in rats with parallel mutations. A collaborator at Boston Children’s Hospital and Harvard Medical School, Mustafa Sahin, will conduct physiological assays in the same mutant mouse and rat models of autism. Jill Silverman, assistant adjunct professor and a collaborator with Crawley, is a key investigator in the PACT initiative.   

The animals will be administered compounds that represent potential pharmacological therapeutics, to test their ability to restore normal sociability and communication skills and lessen other autism-relevant behaviors. Compounds that reduce symptoms in both mouse and rat models of autism will point the way to clinical trials for medications to improve the symptoms of autism in humans. 

"PACT represents the first concerted effort to evaluate a broad range of novel pharmacological targets in multiple rodent genetic models of autism using rigorously standardized assays. Compounds effective at reversing social deficits and repetitive behaviors in mouse and rat models could translate to clinical successes in effectively treating diagnostic symptoms in adults, teenagers, and children with autism," Crawley said. 

"These grants from Autism Speaks are helping to launch two very exciting projects," said Leonard Abbeduto, director of the MIND Institute. "The Ozonoff project has the potential to improve early diagnosis and thus, ensure earlier provision of needed services for families. The grant to the Crawley lab is the first step in creating an infrastructure to dramatically accelerate the development of drug treatments for autism. Both projects have the potential to significantly change clinical services for affected individuals."

At the UC Davis MIND Institute, world-renowned scientists engage in collaborative, interdisciplinary research to find the causes of and develop treatments and cures for autism, attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), fragile X syndrome, 22q11.2 deletion syndrome, Down syndrome and other neurodevelopmental disorders. For more information, visit