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Your Environment. Your Health.

University of California, Davis

Center for Children's Environmental Health and Disease Prevention

Center Overview

Center Location: Davis, California

Public Health Impacts: Autism spectrum disorders (ASD) continue to increase at an alarming rate, and current research suggests that interactions among multiple genes, epigenetic factors, and environmental exposures may contribute to an increased incidence of the disease. The UC Davis Center for Children’s Environmental Health and Disease Prevention is using a multidisciplinary approach and working with communities to identify and understand the etiology of ASD. This research could potentially inform development of targeted interventions to improve outcomes for at-risk children and their families.

Primary Environmental Exposures: Neurotoxicants and immunotoxicants, including mercury, polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), and polybrominated ethers (PBDEs)

Primary Health Outcomes: ASD and related neurodevelopmental disorders

Center Details

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Center Investigators

Principal InvestigatorsJudith Van de Water, Ph.D.  
Pediatric Health Specialist: Robin L. Hansen, M.D. 
Specialties: Respiratory health effects of air pollutants

Project 1 Leader: Irva Hertz-Picciotta, Ph.D. 

Project 2 LeaderJanine M. LaSalle, Ph.D. 

Project 3 LeaderJudith Van de Water, Ph.D. 

Project 4 LeaderIsaac N. Pessah, Ph.D. 

Community Outreach & Translation Core Leader: Robin L. Hansen, M.D. 

Center Description & Activities

The UC Davis Center for Children's Environmental Health and Disease Prevention works to identify and understand environmental, immunologic, and genetic risk factors that contribute to the incidence and severity of childhood autism spectrum disorders. Researchers are identifying modifiable risk factors for autism using resources from two population studies: Childhood Autism Risk from Genetics and the Environment (CHARGE)  and Markers of Autism Risk in Babies - Learning Early Signs (MARBLES) . The CHARGE case-control study follows more than 1,600 children and their parents, and the ongoing longitudinal MARBLES study enrolls women who have a biological child with autism spectrum disorder and are pregnant or planning a pregnancy.

The body’s immune and neural systems are related, and problems in these systems have been shown to play a role in autism spectrum disorders. Center researchers are using data and specimens from existing studies to define how exposure to pollutants can alter the development of the immune and neural systems through common signaling pathways. Researchers are specifically looking at genetic susceptibility, nutritional status, and epigenetic changes. Epigenetic changes modify gene expression without changing the genetic code.

Project 1 (Hertz-Picciotta): Epidemiology and the Environment in Autism

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

Researchers are identifying modifiable risk factors for autism using resources from the CHARGE and MARBLES population studies. Results from this project will lay the groundwork for developing prevention strategies and interventions for autism and for identifying early markers.

Project 2 (Lasalle): Perinatal Epigenetic Signature of Environmental Exposure

Project leader: Janine M. LaSalle, Ph.D. 

Investigators are working to better understand how early life exposures can change a normal developmental trajectory into one that leads to autism spectrum disorders. This project uses genome-wide and gene-focused methods to study human samples from the CHARGE and MARBLES studies.

Project 3 (Water): Immune Environment Interaction and Neurodevelopment

Project leader: Judith Van de Water, Ph.D. 

Researchers are investigating the relationship between contaminant exposure and immune dysfunction in the context of a genetic susceptibility. The investigators are using samples taken during each trimester from mothers enrolled in the MARBLES to conduct a detailed analysis of the molecular and cellular mechanisms through which gene-environment interactions relevant to neurodevelopment may occur.

Project 4 (Pessah): Calcium Signaling Deficits in Autism

Project leader: Isaac N. Pessah, Ph.D. 

Building upon the center’s findings of calcium dysregulation in cultured neurons and immune cells, this project will use neuronal precursor cells derived from stem cells to investigate how a gene tied to increased autism risk influences susceptibility to environmental factors.

Community Outreach & Translation Core (Hansen)

Core leader: Robin L. Hansen, M.D.

The Community Outreach and Translation Core (COTC) acts as a primary conduit for the bi-directional flow of information between the center and community. It works to engage families of children with autism spectrum disorders, the California Department of Health Services, and the broader cross-cultural community in the research process and the translation and application of research findings.

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