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New GW Initiative Advances Efforts Toward Understanding Autism and Neurodevelopmental Disorders

One out of every 88 children in the United States will develop autism sometime during the first three years of life, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The developmental disorder affects the brain’s normal development of social and communication skills. Aimed at raising awareness and furthering research for autism and neurodevelopmental disorders, The George Washington University hosted the Autism and Neurodevelopmental Disorders (AND) Initiative Day on Sept. 19. The University and its collaborative partners — Children’s National Medical Center, GW Medical Faculty Associates, and the George Washington University Hospital — are working together to launch an interdisciplinary institute focused on research, treatment, and policy related to autism and neurodevelopmental disorders.

The AND Initiative is guided by Leo M. Chalupa, Ph.D., vice president for research at GW, and is chaired by Valerie Hu, Ph.D., professor of biochemistry and molecular biology at the GW School of Medicine and Health Sciences (SMHS). Hu is one of 35 GW faculty members, including Anthony LaMantia, Ph.D., director of the GW Institute for Neuroscience and professor of pharmacology and physiology, involved in the AND Initiative. Under Hu’s leadership, the AND Initiative will to raise money for research and broaden awareness of these disorders. 

Hu’s son, Matthew, was diagnosed with autism 23 years ago, when virtually nothing was known about disorder. As a parent, Hu was left wondering what the best options were for her son in terms of treatment, therapy, and education. She shifted the focus of her research toward the root causes of autism in an effort to help other parents better understand the disorder.

During the day-long event, Hu presented a discussion, titled “A Personalized Approach towards Understanding, Diagnosis, and Treatment of Autism.” Taking an in-depth look at the genetic factors that cause autism, Hu described the two components of the disorder, genetics and epigenetics. She explained why boys are fours time more likely to develop autism than girls. The interaction between the retinoic acid-related orphan receptor-alpha (RORA) gene and male and female hormones suggest an increased testosterone level in autistic spectrum disorder. This, Hu explained, is why males may be more susceptible to the disorder. Hu hopes her research will eventually identify a biological marker that can be used to screen for autism.

In his discussion, LaMantia addressed the underlying causes of genetic diseases such as autism, schizophrenia, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, and Down syndrome during his presentation, titled “Copy Number Variants and Autism: Lessons from DiGeorge/22q11Deletion Syndrome.” LaMantia’s research uses mice to illustrate how the brain functions, as well as explain genetic disruptions that cause disease in human patients. According to LaMantia, every disease has a cell pathology and sometimes those cells go haywire, causing neurodevelopmental disorders to develop. Ultimately, these disorders affect a child’s cognitive skills, as well as their physical and social interactions.

Going forward, Chalupa hopes the AND Initiative will serve as clearing house for policymakers, members of the media, and the general public seeking information on research, policy, and the treatment of autism and neurodevelopmental disorders. “There’s nothing like this in the D.C. area, and we have a moral responsibility to do this for the children and adults that have been afflicted by this disorder,” said Chalupa.