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Autism Researchers Use Earth Day Symposium to Focus on Environmental Factors Influencing Autism Vulnerability

Apr. 21, 2008, 10:07 AM

Confronted with evidence that one in six children are battling some type of developmental disorder, the nation’s leading autism researchers seek to discover the impact of environmental agents on autism risk.

The Marino Autism Research Institute (MARI), which supports work at the Vanderbilt Kennedy Center for Research on Human Development, will host a scientific symposium on Environment and Autism on Tuesday, April 22, in Nashville.
A host of national experts will discuss links between autism and the 80,000-plus chemicals registered for use in the United States. The one-day symposium is scheduled on Earth Day and during Autism Awareness Month, bringing together the focuses of the conference.
“When we are thinking about issues of environment we tend to say, ‘This is how we are impacting the ozone or the ice caps,'” said MARI Symposium Chair BethAnn McLaughlin, Ph.D., an assistant professor of Neurology at Vanderbilt.
“But chemicals and environmental toxins are having a significant impact on human health right now. This is not something that is going to happen in 100 years, but something that our children are experiencing today.”
Autism awareness advocate and NFL Hall of Fame quarterback Dan Marino and his wife, Claire, established the Dan Marino Foundation in 1992 to support medical research, treatment, and outreach programs for children with chronic illnesses and developmental disabilities. Their son, Michael, was diagnosed with autism at age of 2.
The Foundation has now raised over $22 million to provide programs and services that benefit hundreds of thousands of children and their families.
“The Marino family has a clear understanding that our best hope for diagnosis and treatment is through exceptional researchers working collaboratively to understand fundamental behavioral, biochemical and molecular aspects of autism spectrum disorders,” said Daniel Messinger, Ph.D., and Michael Alessandri, Ph.D., co-directors of MARI at the University of Miami.
“This symposium gives the MARI teams at University of Miami and the Vanderbilt Kennedy Center a chance to work with other national experts to understand the ways our environment impacts brain development. This is a particularly timely topic and is essential for providing a platform for collaboration, sharing new ideas and training both senior and junior investigators.”
A U.S. National Research Council report published in 2000 concluded that 3 percent of developmental disabilities are the direct result of environmental exposure to substances and another 25 percent arise through interaction between environmental factors and genetic susceptibility.
Nearly eight years later, very little has been done to act on the findings of that report, McLaughlin said.
“There are currently over 80,000 chemicals registered for commercial use with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and 62,000 of those were already in use, and essentially ‘grandfathered’ in, when the Toxic Substances Control Act was passed in 1977.
If you are thinking about the thousands of chemicals that have been registered since this legislation was enacted, fewer than half have been subjected to even token laboratory testing.Most people are startled when they realize how little testing is done on chemicals in common use.We simply haven’t made this research a national priority.” McLaughlin said.
The MARI symposium this April will be the first to focus on environmental factors influencing development, gene-environment interactions, and methodological advances related to these disciplines.
Featured speakers include the nation’s leading experts in genetics, epidemiology, toxicology, neurobiology and behavioral sciences.Dan Marino will give opening comments at the symposium and be on hand to discuss the Marino Foundation’s commitment to curing autism through research excellence.

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