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University of California, Davis

University of California, Davis Center for Children’s Environmental Health (CCEH)

University of California, Davis
Isaac Pessah, Ph.D. 

Project Description:

The University of California, Davis Center for Children’s Environmental Health (CCEH) studies the roles of environmental factors, genes, and the immune system in a person’s susceptibility to autism. Through both population studies and rodent models, the center’s scientists are looking into how environmental triggers affect brain development. They are also examining how biological markers, such as those related to immune system dysfunction, could help clarify why some children develop disorders.


Researchers are studying whether developmental disorders such as autism are related to exposure to a wide range of environmental contaminants including methylmercury, polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), and polybrominated diphenyl ethers. Ultimately, they aim to improve the diagnosis and treatment of autism and to better inform the public about managing and preventing developmental disorders such as autism.

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Project 1: Environmental epidemiology of autism 

Project leader: Irva Hertz-Picciotto, Ph.D.


In this project, researchers build upon research that revealed molecular and immune system factors associated with autism in 2 to 5 year olds participating in the Childhood Autism Risks from Genetics and Environment  (CHARGE). They have also initiated Markers of Autism Risk in Babies-Learning Early Signs  (MARBLES), an epidemiologic study enrolling pregnant women who already have a child with autism. Through the MARBLES study, researchers follow the younger sibling from pregnancy through early childhood. Researchers are exploring whether immune function differences between participants in the CHARGE study are maintained over time. They are also looking at the mechanisms responsible for the immune function variation in the MARBLES study participants.

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Project 2: Immunological susceptibility of autism 

Project leaders: Judith Van de Water, Ph.D., Paul Ashwood, Ph.D. ,


This project uses data from the CHARGE and MARBLES studies to examine whether children with autism are more susceptible to environmental triggers because of defects in their immune systems. Researchers are also studying the effects of environmental chemicals on immune function in children with autism.

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Project 3: Neurodevelopmental toxicology of autism 

Project leaders: Isaac N. Pessah, Ph.D., Robert Berman, Ph.D. ,


This project will determine if early life exposures to environmental chemicals contribute to the onset and/or development of neurodevelopmental disorders such as autism in children. Researchers are determining whether susceptibility intensifies the toxicity of environmental contaminants and increases risk for developmental problems. This project uses mice to examine how the immune system functions and how early exposures to environmental contaminants interact in a developing organism. Understanding the way that disorders are caused by such chemicals is a vital part of learning how to lessen or even eliminate the harm they can cause.

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