NIH Awards $100 Million for Autism Centers of Excellence Program

Nine grantees receive research funding over next five years

The National Institutes of Health has announced grant awards of $100 million over five years for the Autism Centers of Excellence (ACE) research program, which will feature projects investigating sex differences in autism spectrum disorders, or ASD, and investigating ASD and limited speech.

The disorders are complex developmental disorders that affect how a person behaves, interacts with others, communicates and learns.  According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, ASD affects approximately 1 in 88 children in the United States.

NIH created the ACE Program in 2007 to launch an intense and coordinated research program into the causes of ASD and to find new treatments.

"The ACE program allows NIH institutes to leverage their resources to support the large collaborative efforts needed to advance the  broad research goals of the Interagency Coordinating Committee Strategic Plan for ASD research," said Alice Kau, Ph.D., of the Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities Branch at the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD), one of five institutes funding the ACE program.  "This year, the program has expanded to such areas as children and adults who have limited, or no speech, possible links between ASD and other genetic syndromes, potential treatments and the possible reasons why ASD are more common among boys than girls."

In addition to the NICHD, the NIH institutes that support the ACE program are the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders, the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, the National Institute of Mental Health and the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke.

The nine awards for 2012 will support research at individual centers or at research networks, which involve multiple institutions, dedicated to the study of ASD. 

Grants were awarded to research teams led by the following investigators:

2012 Center Grants

  • Susan Bookheimer, Ph.D. (University of California, Los Angeles)―This research group will use brain imaging technology to chart brain development among individuals having genes suspected of contributing to  ASD.  The researchers hope to link genetic variants to distinct patterns of brain development, structure and function in ASDs.  Researchers in this center also are investigating treatments that will improve social behavior and attention in infants and acquisition of language in older children with ASD.
  • Ami Klin, Ph.D. (Emory University, Atlanta)― The Emory team will investigate risk and resilience in ASD, such as identifying factors associated with positive outcomes or social disability, starting in 1-month-old infants and will begin treatment in 12 month olds in randomized clinical trials. Through parallel studies in model systems, the researchers will chart brain development of neural networks involved in social interaction. This center will increase understanding of how ASD unfolds across early development.
  • Helen Tager–Flusberg, Ph.D. (Boston University)―Many individuals with ASD fail to acquire spoken language, and little is known about why this is so. This research team will use brain imaging technologies in an effort to understand why these individuals do not learn to speak, with the goal of helping them to overcome this limitation.  The research team will also test new approaches to help young children with ASD acquire language.

2012 Network Grants

  • Connie Kasari, Ph.D. (University of California, Los Angeles)―This network will compare two types of intensive, daily instruction for children with ASD who use only minimal verbal communication.  Earlier research has shown that even after early language-skills training, about one-third of school aged children with ASD remain minimally verbal.  Researchers plan to enroll 200 children in four cities: Los Angeles, Nashville New York City, and Rochester, N.Y. 
  • Kevin Pelphrey, Ph.D. (Yale University, New Haven, Conn.)― A team of researchers from Yale, UCLA, Harvard, and the University of Washington will investigate the poorly understood nature of ASD in females.  The project will study a larger sample of girls with autism than has been studied previously, and will focus on genes, brain function, and behavior throughout childhood and adolescence. The objectives are to identify causes of ASD and develop new treatments.  According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, ASD are almost 5 times more common among boys (1 in 54) than among girls (1 in 252).
  • Joseph Piven, M.D. (University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill)―This research group previously used brain imaging to show atypical brain development at age 6 months in infants who were later diagnosed with ASD.  The group now plans to follow another group of infants at risk for ASD.  In this study, they will do more frequent scans throughout infancy and until age 2, to gain a greater understanding of early brain development in children with ASD. 
  • Abraham Reichenberg, Ph.D. (Mount Sinai School of Medicine, New York City)―Researchers in this network will embark on an ambitious attempt to understand how genetic and environmental factors influence the development of autism.  The researchers will analyze detailed records and biospecimens from 4.5 million births involving 20,000 cases of ASD, from 7 countries (the United States, Australia, Denmark, Finland, Israel, Norway, and Sweden.)  The analysis will span three generations and involve grandparents, parents, aunts, uncles, and siblings and cousins.
  • Mustafa Sahin, M.D., Ph.D. (Harvard Medical School, Boston) and Darcy Krueger, M.D., Ph.D. (Cincinnati Children's Hospital and University of Cincinnati)―This network will recruit patients with tuberous sclerosis complex, a rare genetic disease that causes tumors in the brain and other vital organs.  Patients with tuberous sclerosis complex have an increased risk for developing autism.  The researchers will track brain development in infants diagnosed with tuberous sclerosis complex, to gain insights into how autism develops.
  • Linmarie Sikich, M.D. (University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill)―The researchers will test whether treatment with  oxytocin nasal spray can improve social interaction and communication in children with ASD.  Oxytocin is a neuropeptide (used by brain cells to communicate) and has been associated with social behaviors.  The researchers plan to enroll 300 children with ASD between 3 and 17 years old from Boston, Chapel Hill and Durham, N.C.; Nashville, New York City, and Seattle.

Additional information about ASD is available at


About the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD): The NICHD sponsors research on development, before and after birth; maternal, child, and family health; reproductive biology and population issues; and medical rehabilitation. For more information, visit the Institute's website at  

About the National Institutes of Health (NIH): NIH, the nation's medical research agency, includes 27 Institutes and Centers and is a component of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. NIH is the primary federal agency conducting and supporting basic, clinical, and translational medical research, and is investigating the causes, treatments, and cures for both common and rare diseases. For more information about NIH and its programs, visit

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