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In what amounts to the largest funding initiative for research on autism spectrum disorders thus far in the US, the NIH is pledging $60 million from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) over the next two years.

The $60 million for the autism initiative will come largely from the NIH stimulus funds, said Lisa Gilotty, PhD, program chief at the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) Social Behavior and Autism Program.

The breakdown of NIH funds for autism grants includes $30 million for the NIMH, $5 million for the NINDS, $20 million for the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD), and $5 million for the National Institute for Environmental Health Sciences.

The funds will provide for between 40 to 50 grants for research on autism spectrum disorders. This infusion of money is “an exciting opportunity to advance research in many areas of the greatest need,” said Dr. Gilotty. These areas include developing diagnostic screening tools for diverse populations; adapting effective pediatric treatments for teens and adults; initiating clinical trials to test early interventions; and assessing risk from prenatal or early life exposures.

The stimulus funding will help jump-start many of the short-term objectives in the Strategic Plan for Autism Spectrum Disorder Research developed by the Interagency Autism Coordinating Committee, Dr. Gilotty said. The committee coordinates all efforts concerning autism spectrum disorders within the Department of Health and Human Services. For example, the initiatives include two multisite, randomized controlled trials of comprehensive early interventions that address core symptoms, family functioning, and community involvement by 2013, and at least four research projects to identify biomarkers that measure major changes in core symptoms of autism spectrum disorders across the lifespan by 2010.

In addition to funding grants, the NIH intends to use stimulus funds to support grants through a new two-year research program called the NIH Challenge Grants in Health and Science, according to the NIMH. Research priorities will include identifying new tools for autism screening and biomarkers, as well as building autism registries for use in comparing the effectiveness of different therapies.

“This funding could not have come at a better time,” said Nancy J. Minshew, MD, professor of psychiatry and neurology at the University of Pittsburgh. “It enables NIH to enhance existing important efforts that are thinly funded, leveraging its best investments to the maximum. It has given the NIH the capacity to fund many extraordinary applications reviewed in the past year that were not funded because pay lines were in the single digits. It also for the first time gives the NIH a rapid response capacity to launch new efforts addressing high priority initiatives.”

Dr. Minshew noted that all program officers at NIH have major experience in their research areas, spending years thinking about five- and 10-year plans. “I would expect them to know immediately what the most important needs are in their respective areas and for their responses to be based on years of deliberation and knowledge.”

One of the challenges is getting reviewers with no conflicts of interest who can complete reviews on the massive number of applications submitted to the NIH, she said.

“This stimulus money provides both the ultimate opportunity and impetus for the NIH, for researchers and for reviewers to make a tough transition from parsing details to focusing on innovation. Not all will be able to support the transition. It will take flexible and conceptual thinkers.”

Additional research areas strongly targeted (with stimulus funds) by NINDS include; standardization and validation of neurological biomarkers (including perfusion imaging in acute stroke and diffusion-based imaging in traumatic brain injury); developing non-invasive imaging approaches that directly assess neural activity; and manipulating the blood-brain-barrier to deliver CNS therapies for mental and nervous system disorders.

Resources for Autism Research, Funding