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University of Pittsburgh Schools of the Health Sciences

Pitt Autism Center of Excellence Receives $9.6 Million NIH Grant

PITTSBURGH, December 17, 2007 The Center for Excellence in Autism Research (CeFAR) at the University of Pittsburgh has been named an Autism Center of Excellence (ACE) by the National Institutes of Health (NIH). This prestigious and highly competitive award comes with $9.6 million of funding over five years for the autism research program led by Nancy Minshew, M.D., director of CeFAR and professor of psychiatry and neurology at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine.

Our researchers will help identify the earliest signs of autism and their underlying mechanisms, and this will help us to diagnose the disorder sooner and develop treatments earlier, said Dr. Minshew. Research will help us to understand critical differences in how people with autism solve problems and reason. These studies also will provide the resources to enable us to find the genes contributing to autism and their impact on the individual variability that characterizes this disorder.

The ACE program represents a consolidation of two Pitt programs, the Collaborative Programs of Excellence in Autism and the Studies to Advance Autism Research and Treatment, which includes researchers from Carnegie Mellon University.

Autism is a complex brain disorder that inhibits a persons ability to communicate and develop social relationships, often accompanied by extreme behavioral challenges. Autism often is grouped with similar disorders referred to informally as autism spectrum disorders (ASD) and formally as Pervasive Developmental Disorders. The ACE centers and networks are NIHs next phase in the strategic plan.

Although research over the past 15 years has provided growing insights into ASDs, the underlying causes are unknown. Autism is the fastest-growing developmental disability, now affecting one in every 150 births around the world. Currently, treatments help some but not all, and fall considerably short of a cure.

Two of the ACE research programs will be led by Carnegie Mellon University scientists Marcel Just, Ph.D., and Kevin Pelphrey, Ph.D., who will use computational and neuroimaging techniques as part of the autism study.

The research being conducted within the ACE will focus on the differences in the thought processes of people with autism and in how the brain thinks and develops, including how faces and face emotion are recognized, how language is understood, how decisions are made and how problems solved.

These issues will be studied in 4-month-old infants with an older sibling diagnosed with autism; 16-month-olds to 4-year-olds of all ability levels who are thought to have, or were just diagnosed with, autism or autism spectrum disorder; and 5 to 55-year-olds with autism who are verbal and have IQ scores between 80 and 120.

These studies are now accepting volunteers who would like to participate. For more information, call 412-246-5485 or

This Pittsburgh ACE award involves scientists at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine (Nancy Minshew, M.D., Ahmad Hariri, Ph.D., and Victoria Grochocinski, Ph.D.), the University of Pittsburgh (Mark Strauss, Ph.D., Susan Campbell, Ph.D., Jana Iverson, Ph.D.), Carnegie Mellon University (Marcel Just, Ph.D., and Kevin Pelphrey, Ph.D.) and Duquesne University (Diane Williams, Ph.D.).

Funding for the University of Pittsburgh Autism Center of Excellence comes from the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development.


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