March 28, 2008

Environment’s impact on autism to be explored

Featured Image

Pro football great Dan Marino, here with Vanderbilt’s BethAnn McLaughlin, Ph.D., will be on hand for next month’s symposium exploring the impact of environmental agents on autism risk.

Environment’s impact on autism to be explored

Confronted with evidence that one in six children are battling some type of developmental disorder, the nation's leading autism researchers are looking at 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 (VKC), will host a scientific symposium on Environment and Autism on Tuesday, April 22, in Nashville.

“We are enthusiastic about bringing together geneticists, neuroscientists, toxicologists and experts on autism to think creatively in order to advance our understanding of gene-environment relationships that may increase risk for our children in developing autism,” said VKC Director Pat Levitt, Ph.D.

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 BethAnn McLaughlin, Ph.D., assistant professor of Neurology at Vanderbilt and MARI Symposium chair.

“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 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., who co-directs the MARI at the University of Miami with Michael Alessandri, Ph.D.

“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.”

MARI provides a visionary model for creating scientific synergy across two world-class research institutions, said Wendy Stone, Ph.D., VKC MARI director.

“MARI funding has enhanced the research community at Vanderbilt by providing resources for innovative projects designed to understand autism at behavioral, genetic, biological and neurological levels,” said Stone, also director of VKC's Treatment and Research Institute for Autism Spectrum Disorders (TRIAD).

The MARI symposium is the first to focus on environmental factors influencing development, gene-environment interactions, and methodological advances related to these disciplines. Featured speakers include experts in genetics, epidemiology, toxicology, neurobiology and behavioral sciences.

Registration ends April 8. For more information contact Jan Rosemergy at 322-8238.