April 25, 2008

Symposium explores link between environment, autism

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Professional football hall of famer and autism research advocate Dan Marino and his wife, Claire, second from left, were at Vanderbilt this week to take part in a daylong symposium on autism and the environment that was sponsored by the Marino Autism Research Institute. The symposium highlighted research being done by investigators from Vanderbilt and the Vanderbilt Kennedy Center. Here, Marino greets Jeannette Stankowski, left, and BethAnn McLaughlin, Ph.D., right, who chaired the symposium. (photo by Michael Hopkins, Gerlinde Photography)

Symposium explores link between environment, autism

It's been called the “silent pandemic” — our exposure to thousands of man-made chemicals, some of which may be affecting the brain development of our children.

“You're being bathed in them, kids are being bathed in them, pregnant women are being bathed in them every day,” Duke University researcher Theodore Slotkin, Ph.D., said during a symposium on autism and the environment Tuesday at Vanderbilt University.

There is increasing evidence that environmental factors — in combination with genetic susceptibilities — may contribute to autism and other neurodevelopmental disorders.

Only a fraction of the more than 80,000 chemicals on the market, however, have been tested for neurodevelopmental toxicity. And teasing out which genes and which environmental factors are linked to which sets of behaviors is proving to be an extraordinarily difficult task.

“Genes in virtually every chromosome are probably going to be involved in autism at some level,” said Vanderbilt autism researcher James Sutcliffe, Ph.D. “Different families may possess different sets of these genes that may play a role in risk, but it's going to be different sets of genes in different families.

“Until we really have a handle on what some of the genes are, it's going to be difficult to make firm conclusions about what some of the environmental interactions are,” he said.

Slotkin and Sutcliffe were among 11 scientists from across the United States who spoke at the symposium, sponsored by the Marino Autism Research Institute.

“The next step is research, where we can really make an impact,” said NFL Hall of Fame quarterback Dan Marino, who established the institute in 2006 with his wife, Claire. “This could be something special, (something that can) make a difference in the quality of life.”

The institute is an outgrowth of the Dan Marino Foundation, established by the Marinos after their second son, Michael, was diagnosed with autism. It is a “virtual institute” that supports collaborative research between the University of Miami and the Vanderbilt Kennedy Center for Research on Human Development.

Despite the challenges, “incredible progress is being made,” Sutcliffe concluded. “Things are really picking up.”