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Collaborative Projects

The Modifiable Risk Factors (MRF) team of the A.J. Drexel Autism Institute is involved in a number of multi-site collaborative projects. These include, among others, large-scale national studies that pool data across diverse child cohorts; multi-site studies focused on autism cases and controls; and baby sibling projects that follow children whose older siblings have already been diagnosed with ASD. Through active participation and leadership in these projects, MRF faculty maintain consistent collaboration with other leading institutions, facilitating strong research networks and a wealth of data accessibility.

An Autism-Enriched Risk Cohort in Environmental Influences on Child Health Outcomes (ECHO)

ECHO logo child in tree swing Environmental influences on Child Health Outcomes

Principal Investigator: Craig Newschaffer, Ph.D.
Funder: National Institutes of Health

The Environmental influences on Child Health Outcomes (ECHO) program studies how environmental factors affect child health and development through a seven-year initiative supporting multiple, existing, longitudinal cohorts. ECHO focuses on four key pediatric outcomes that have a high public health impact: upper and lower airway, obesity, pre-, peri-, and postnatal outcomes, and neurodevelopment.

As the leader of the Autism Spectrum Disorder-Enriched Risk Cohort, Drexel brings together a large sample of children whose older siblings have ASD and who have participated in other research projects, including the EARLI study. In addition to collecting new information on children’s health and development as part of the larger ECHO-wide analyses, researchers collect shed baby teeth from this ASD-specific cohort to test a novel method of determining whether prenatal exposure to persistent organic pollutants and metals affects the risk of ASD. This project also investigates whether genetic background makes some children more or less susceptible to these exposures, and demonstrates model approaches for studying gene-environment interaction.

Optimizing Social Communication Measurement with the Social Responsiveness Scale

children running Principal Investigator: Kristen Lyall, Sc.D. 
Funder: National Institute of Health/ECHO OIF Award

The Social Responsiveness Scale (SRS) is one of the most widely-used measures of social communication and ASD-related phenotype. Because the SRS captures ASD-related traits on a quantitative scale, it can be a powerful tool in ASD etiologic research, and may help to inform risk factor influence on more subtle shifts in the distribution of traits across the population. Recently, a shortened version of this scale was proposed to reduce administration time and potential influence of other psychiatric comorbidities; however, it has seen little application in the field and it is not known whether the short form exhibits the same properties as the full scale. Thus, the goals of this project are to examine the distributional properties and criterion validity of the shortened scale, relative to the full SRS, using data collected from cohorts participating in the Environmental Influences on Child Health Outcomes (ECHO) collaborative project. In addition, a computer-adaptive testing-based SRS will also be developed, and a validation study conducted in order to compare performance across the 3 versions of the SRS and inform future work on quantitative assessment of ASD-related traits.

Oxidative Stress Pathways and Placental Pathology in Association with ASD phenotype

Principal Investigator:Kristen Lyall, Sc.D.
Funder: National Institute of Child Health and Development

Oxidative stress (OS) arises when there is an imbalance between reactive oxygen species and antioxidant defense mechanisms. Because OS can interfere with fetal brain development and can lead to DNA damage, it has been hypothesized that OS may be one mechanism impacting the development of ASD. However, the link between OS and ASD has not been studied during gestation. This study aims to determine whether biological markers of OS are associated with ASD-related phenotype measures in a prospective cohort. In addition, because OS may impact placental development and the placenta is the key interface between the developing fetus and the mother, the project will also examine potential mediation by placental morphology and vascular pathology from prospectively collected placental samples, using effect decomposition methods. Results of this work will provide novel information about OS pathways in impaired neurodevelopment and social functioning.

Early Autism Risk Longitudinal Investigation (EARLI)


EARlI logo mother and infant

Principal Investigator: Craig Newschaffer, Ph.D.
Funder: National Institute of Environmental Health, National Institute of Mental Health, National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke

Launched in 2008, the Early Autism Risk Longitudinal Investigation (EARLI) is a unique, long-term, prospective study of prenatal autism spectrum disorder risk factors and markers. The study follows hundreds of mothers who previously had a child with autism, from the start of a subsequent pregnancy through delivery, and then follows the children through age three to evaluate for autism and identify any associated environmental factors. Recently published research using EARLI data sheds light on how epigenetic changes to paternal sperm or the formation of veins and arteries in the placenta during pregnancy relate to autism risk – all part of a kaleidoscope of complex factors contributing to autism’s underlying biologic causes. Researchers in the Modifiable Autism Risk Factors Research Program collaborate on a number of sub-studies examining targeted questions and extensions of the project’s original aims.

This multi-site study is conducted with collaborators at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, University of California Davis M.I.N.D. Institute, and Northern California Kaiser Division of Research.

MD CADDRE: Study to Explore Early Development, Phase III

Principal Investigator: Craig Newschaffer, Ph.D./ Danielle Fallin, Ph.D. (Johns Hopkins University)
Funder: National Center on Birth Defects and Developmental Disabilities

This population-based case-control study will add about 625 additional children to the almost 5,000 families already enrolled in previous phases, improving the ability to study phenotypic subgroups of autism and identify gene and environment interactions. This project will help to shed light on prenatal and early-life risk factors for Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) and help elucidate the differences and similarities in preschoolers with ASD in symptoms, behavior, functional ability, health, sleep, genetics, and autoimmunity. The project also explores participating families' sociodemographics, health care access, lifestyle, and reproductive history.