Searching for Preventable Causes
April 11, 2018
A.J. Drexel Autism Institute Director Dr. Craig Newschaffer is one of the world’s premier autism researchers. He focuses on identifying modifiable risk factors that might lead to the prevention of adverse behavioral effects in certain individuals with autism.
Since 2008, Dr. Newschaffer has been leading the Early Autism Risk Longitudinal Investigation (EARLI), a one-of-akind, long-term study of pre-, peri- and neonatal risk factors and risk biomarkers for autism spectrum disorder.
The EARLI study, initially funded as a National Institutes of Health “Center of Excellence” project, is one of the most extensive ongoing epidemiologic studies to understand the complex causes of autism. Dr. Newschaffer’s groundbreaking research follows hundreds of mothers who have previously had a child with autism, from the start of a subsequent pregnancy through delivery. He and his team then follow these children through age 3 to assess behaviors indicative of autism and to identify any associated environmental factors.
The ultimate goal of this work is to improve quality of life for the individuals and families affected by autism by understanding contributing causes that could be avoided. Brain changes linked to autism begin during the prenatal period. If, for example, the Modifiable Risk Factors Program discovers that certain environmental pollutants play a part in changing the brains of genetically susceptible individuals in utero, this might support regulatory changes that could alter the lives of future generations.
“The EARLI study is truly groundbreaking because it is one of the few studies that focuses on the prenatal window. Even though we know that autism is heritable and that genetics are important to the cause of autism, we ultimately can’t change our genetics. We can change other factors that work with genetics to contribute to the brain changes behind autism. Since we’re studying a population that has a higher baseline genetic risk for autism, it’s easier to find these other factors. Five years after we started the EARLI study, we have a cohort of moms and infants in place, as well as a huge, very rich biologic repository of samples. This rare collection is remarkable because there aren’t a lot of repositories like it in the world, and it gives us the ability to answer a number of research questions going forward,” says Dr. Newschaffer.