The ACE Program is a trans-NIH initiative that supports large-scale multidisciplinary studies on autism spectrum disorders (ASDs), with the goal of determining the disorders' causes and the best treatments for them.
The Program includes ACE research centers, which foster collaboration between teams of specialists who share the same facility to address a particular research problem in depth, and ACE research networks, which consist of researchers at many facilities in locations throughout the country, all of whom work together on a single research question. The ACE program currently comprises three research centers and eight research networks around the United States; since the recompetition of 2012 , the NICHD has had primary responsibility for the support of one center and four networks. The ACE program is funded through a combination of three grant mechanisms: the P50 for ACE centers and R01 and U01 grants for ACE networks.
The Program receives support from the NICHD Intellectual and Developmental Disorders (IDD) Branch, the National Institute of Mental Health, the National Institute for Deafness and Other Communication Disorders, the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, and the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences. These Institutes are also active members of the NIH Autism Coordinating Committee (NIH ACC), which was created in 1997 in response to a request from Congress to enhance the quality, pace, and coordination of autism research at the NIH. They are also key members of the broader federal Interagency Autism Coordinating Committee (IACC), which includes representatives from various agencies within the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) and other governmental agencies, including the U.S. Department of Education.
ACE institutions are required to collect data using common methods and to submit all data to the NIH's centralized National Database for Autism Research (NDAR). This informatics platform allows for the seamless integration of data, research tools, and research projects from institutions around the world and increases the power and efficiency of ACE research.
The ACE Program was created in 2007 from the consolidation of the NICHD’s past efforts on autism research, the Collaborative Program of Excellence in Autism (CPEA) and the Studies to Advance Autism Treatment and Research (STAART) Network, in an effort to better coordinate autism research across the NIH.
The IACC and the NIH ACC play critical roles in developing goals and objectives for ACE Program research. One responsibility of the IACC is the development of a strategic plan for ASD research. The IACC first issued a strategic plan in 2009, which was updated yearly until 2012. In 2013, instead of updating the strategic plan, the IACC focused on assessing scientific progress and summarizing investment in the research objectives listed in the strategic plan (http://iacc.hhs.gov/strategic-plan/2013/index.shtml).
The current ACE Centers and Networks conduct research in the following topic areas:
- The structural and functional differences in the brains of infants who will later develop autism, including differences linked to learning, emotion, behavior, and communication
- Assessment of two types of behavioral treatments for children with ASD who use only minimal verbal communication
- The genetic and environmental factors influencing the development of autism using detailed records and biospecimens from 4.5 million births involving 20,000 cases of ASD from 7 countries
- Brain development in infants diagnosed with tuberous sclerosis complex, to gain insights into how autism develops
- The genetic bases of autism risk and of specific symptoms of autism, such as communication difficulties and repetitive behaviors
- Behaviors linked to autism, including interpersonal interactions, insistence on sameness, and fixation on narrow subjects
- Factors present prenatally or in infancy, such as neurological, physical, behavioral, communication-related, and environmental factors, that predispose some infants to autism and protect others
- Pharmacological and behavioral treatments to promote more normal brain development and better outcomes in children with autism
ACE Research Centers
ACE Research Networks