Skip to main content

Kennedy Center joins nation’s largest autism study

Apr. 21, 2016, 10:03 AM

The Vanderbilt Kennedy Center (VKC) is one of a select group of sites selected to launch SPARK, an online research initiative designed to become the largest autism study ever undertaken in the United States.

Sponsored by the Simons Foundation Autism Research Initiative (SFARI), SPARK will collect information and DNA for genetic analysis from 50,000 individuals with autism — and their families — to advance the understanding of the causes of this condition and to hasten the discovery of supports and treatments.

Zachary Warren, Ph.D.

VKC joins 21 leading national research institutions chosen by SFARI to assist with recruitment. The SPARK effort is being led locally by Zachary Warren, Ph.D., associate professor of Pediatrics, Psychiatry and Special Education and executive director of the Treatment and Research Institute for Autism Spectrum Disorders (TRIAD).

“Families impacted by autism have been desperate for science to provide better answers about the disorder,” Warren said. “Unfortunately, the pace of discovery regarding the causes and novel treatments has been too slow. SPARK represents a bold attempt to radically advance our fundamental understanding of autism. There has been nothing like this attempted on this scale to date.

“It’s an exciting opportunity and I’m very hopeful we’ll be able to leverage Vanderbilt’s strong patient and community partnerships to advance discoveries around autism,” Warren said.

Autism is known to have a strong genetic component. To date, approximately 50 genes have been identified that almost certainly play a role in autism, and scientists estimate that an additional 300 or more are involved. By studying these genes, associated biological mechanisms and how genetics interact with environmental factors, researchers can better understand the condition’s causes, and link them to the spectrum of symptoms, skills and challenges of those affected.

SPARK aims to speed up autism research by inviting participation from this large, diverse autism community, with the goal of including individuals with a professional diagnosis of autism of both sexes and all ages, backgrounds, races, geographic locations and socioeconomic situations.

SPARK will connect participants to researchers, offering them the opportunity to impact the future of autism research by joining any of the multiple studies offered through SPARK.

The initiative will catalyze research by creating large-scale access to study participants whose DNA may be selectively analyzed for a specific scientific question of interest.

SPARK will also elicit feedback from individuals and parents of children with autism to develop a robust research agenda that is meaningful for them.

“The SPARK study will not only establish a national cohort, but at Vanderbilt we’ll be able to connect our families to our own science of discovery,” Warren said. “In addition, we’ll be able to utilize resources from the study to strengthen our relationships with families and our community partners. We’re hopeful this will represent yet another powerful partnership between Vanderbilt and the Simons Foundation that will ultimately provide better answers to those with desperate questions.”

To learn more or participate in SPARK, visit or contact Sarah Carpenter at or 615-875-9970.

Recent Stories from VUMC News and Communications Publications

Vanderbilt Medicine
VUMC Voice