August 17, 2007

VKC to study ‘insistence on sameness’ feature of autism

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Jim Sutcliffe, Ph.D.

VKC to study 'insistence on sameness' feature of autism

Vanderbilt Kennedy Center autism researchers are receiving approximately $385,000 over five years to partner with the University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC) in investigating autism causes and treatments as part of a $9.6 million National Institutes of Health grant to establish an Autism Center for Excellence in the Midwest.

UIC is one of five centers receiving funds in 2007 to study autism spectrum disorders (ASD). The Midwest center will investigate underlying causes and potential treatments for a common feature seen in autism known as insistence on sameness, part of a broader pattern of repetitive-restricted behaviors.

This hallmark behavior of ASD is evident in persons who insist on, for example, wearing the same clothes every day, taking the same route to work or school, or who become fixated on certain objects such as planes or cars.

“For these persons, change is bad,” said Jim Sutcliffe, Ph.D. “While, clinically, it looks very different, it has a biological connection with obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD).”

Autism is a complex brain disorder involving communication and social difficulties as well as repetitive behaviors and narrow interests. It affects roughly one in 150 individuals and has limited treatment options.

The UIC Autism Center of Excellence will focus on genetic factors, brain chemicals and brain functions that could account for the repetitive behaviors and test to see if genetic differences influence how individuals respond to certain medications intended to reduce these behaviors.

"Problems related to repetitive behaviors, such as anxiety and aggression, are among the most troublesome and debilitating for individuals with autism and their families," said UIC Autism Center of Excellence Director Edwin Cook, M.D.

Approximately one-third of people with autism have serious repetitive behavior problems, said Cook. Disruption in rituals or routines for these children and adults can result in prolonged tantrums, screaming, violence or physical injury.

Vanderbilt researchers will collaborate with Cook and his team by studying the role of common and rare alleles in genes that encode the (neurotransmitter) serotonin system in autism.

Previous research has shown that selective serotonin re-uptake inhibitor medications, also known as SSRI drugs, are effective and can dramatically improve quality of life in some patients with repetitive behaviors and obsessive compulsive disorder.

Both autism and OCD show strong evidence for affecting the serotonin system.

"The goal of the center is to approach this vexing clinical problem from genetic, cognitive neuroscience and pharmacological approaches, across species, in an unusually integrated way," said Cook.

The center's focus on insistence on sameness will allow testing and development of new individualized treatments and optimization of available drug treatments to best complement behavioral interventions, he added.

The project and core principal investigators funded under the UIC Autism Center of Excellence are Cook, John Sweeney, Michael Ragozzino, Thomas Owley, Robert Gibbons, Bennett Leventhal and Jeff Salt at UIC; Sutcliffe at Vanderbilt University; and Nancy Cox at the University of Chicago.