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Your Environment. Your Health.

Autism and the Environment: New Ideas for Advancing the Science

September 8, 2010
NIEHS Campus

Autism and the Environment: New ideas for advancing the science


Workshop Goal

The goal of this workshop is to identify novel opportunities and mechanisms to accelerate research on environmental factors and autism, guided by (1) recent advances in autism research; (2) emerging tools and technologies in environmental health sciences and (3) analogy to successful approaches in other environmentally-mediated diseases. This workshop represents a joint effort between the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS) and Autism Speaks.

Workshop Products

The products of this workshop will include recommendations for (1) highest priority areas of research that address the contribution of environmental factors for risk and phenotypic expression of autism; (2) possible solutions for any barriers to progress identified in these areas; and (3) other resources needed for increasing the pace of this research. The workshop products will be shared with the Interagency Autism Coordinating Committee (IACC) and may be considered in the ongoing process for evaluating and refining the IACC Strategic Plan.

Primary Topics for Discussion

Topic 1: Lessons learned from other environmentally-mediated disorders. (Cindy Lawler, Jason Richardson, Caroline Tanner, Alycia Halladay, Kim McAllister)

  • What are the lessons learned from other disorders that demonstrate how information about known risks from single genes or gene pathways can provide clues for environmental etiologies?
  • What are the most successful examples of interdisciplinary integration of basic and clinical research in other environmentally mediated diseases (e.g., Parkinson’s disease, asthma) that could provide a model for cross fertilization?
  • What is needed to shift the current paradigm of waiting for autism epidemiology studies to provide clues to pursue in basic mechanistic studies?

Topic 2: New tools, technologies and approaches in toxicology and genomics. (Isaac Pessah, Raymond Tice, Robert Kavlock, Carolyn Mattingly, Aaron Bowman).

  • How can new tools and approaches being developed in toxicology and genomics be used to advance research in environment and autism? Areas to consider include but are not limited to
    • bioinformatics and computational approaches to discern relationships among genes and to identify potential interactions of genes and toxicants (e.g., Comparative Toxicogenomics Database).
    • novel sequencing tools and other genomic approaches, including tools to measure epigenetic modifications and structural variation (e.g., copy number variation)
    • induced pluripotent stem cells to study developmental vulnerability to toxicants
    • mechanistically-based high throughput screening approaches for neurotoxicology endpoints relevant to autism
  • What are the primary obstacles to application of these tools to address environmental influences in autism and how can these obstacles be overcome?

Topic 3: Cellular, molecular and organismic mechanisms and models. (Isaac Pessah, Jean Harry, Serena Dudek, Sheryl Moy, Lisa Boulanger, Patricia Jensen, Glenn Rall)

  • How can advances in autism science inform mechanistic investigations of environmental inputs to autism? For example, do recent genetic or immune findings suggest specific molecular targets or pathways that could help prioritize candidate exposures or provide tractable models for pursuing the impact of exposures on autism risk?
  • What models (e.g., whole animal, cellular) are currently available and relevant to autism pathobiology? What are the barriers to progress in development, dissemination and use of these models?

Topic 4: Exposure Science and epidemiology approaches. (Lisa Croen, Dana Barr, Danielle Fallin, Igor Burstyn, Geri Dawson)

  • How can we harness improvements in exposure metrics to identify environmental etiologies of autism? This could include discussion of a range of approaches being developed, from GIS-based models to biomarkers and personal sensors and consideration of emerging toxicants.
  • What study design and analytic approaches are best suited for understanding the joint effects of genes and environment in epidemiology studies? For example, how can exposure information be combined with the large amounts of genetic data that is now available in autism?
  • Are there unique opportunities and populations internationally for studying association of exposures with autism? For example, how can we capitalize on recent improvements in international infrastructure/capacity for autism surveillance?
  • What are the primary obstacles to progress for autism epidemiology?


Time Event Speaker
8:30-8:45 Welcome and introductions Linda Birnbaum and Geri Dawson
8:45-9:00 Charge to group Cindy Lawler
9:00-10:00 Lessons learned from other environmentally-mediated disorders Discussion Leader: Cindy Lawler
Jason Richardson, Caroline Tanner, Alycia Halladay, Kim McAllister
10:00-10:15 Break  
10:15-11:15 Novel tools and approaches in toxicology and genomics Discussion Leader: Isaac Pessah & TBD
Ray Tice, Carolyn Mattingly, Robert Kavlock, David Armstrong, Steven Scherer, Aaron Bowman
11:15-12:45 Cellular and Molecular Mechanisms Discussion Leader: Isaac Pessah
Jean Harry, Lisa Boulanger, Serena Dudek, Patricia Jensen, Glen Rall
12:45-1:15 Working Lunch  
1:15-2:45 Epidemiology and Exposure Science Discussion Leader: Lisa Croen
Geri Dawson, Dani Fallin, Dana Barr, Igor Burstyn
2:45-3:00 Break  
3:00-4:15 General discussion and summary of recommendations Discussion Leader: Geri Dawson & all subgroup leaders
4:15-4:30 Wrap up and Next steps Cindy Lawler

This meeting is being sponsored by the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS) in partnership with Autism Speaks.

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