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Autism Speaks awards second class of Dennis Weatherstone pre-doctoral fellowships

NEW YORK, N.Y. (September 30, 2010) Autism Speaks is pleased to announce the 2010 class of Dennis Weatherstone Pre-Doctoral Fellows. Made possible by a multi-year grant from the Stavros Niarchos Foundation named in honor of former J.P. Morgan CEO Sir Dennis Weatherstone, eight fellowship projects were selected for funding by Autism Speaks with awards totaling $448,000 over the next two years. The fellowship awards will provide highly qualified candidates with exceptional research training opportunities across various areas related to the study of autism spectrum disorders (ASD). Established in 2008, the intent of the fellowship program is to encourage the most promising young scientists to establish autism research as their chosen career path. The fellowship awards will provide highly qualified predoctoral students with exceptional research training opportunities under the mentorship of distinguished scientists studying all aspects of ASD. The Dennis Weatherstone Fellowship program is designed to support the growth of a promising cadre of young autism scientists.

These eight fellows were selected out of 50 proposals from a highly qualified and enthusiastic field of candidates. Projects were selected for funding based on the strengths of the training plan, research strategy, mentor's qualifications and the relevance of the topic to Autism Speaks' research priority areas. The topics are described below.

"We are extremely pleased to welcome this second class of fellows who represent a diverse group of highly qualified researchers whose work spans genetics, neuroscience and clinical research," says Geraldine Dawson, Ph.D., chief science officer for Autism Speaks. "As stewards of this generous gift to Autism Speaks, we believe the Weatherstone Fellows program not only jumpstarts careers of promising scientists, but leverages our investment by creating collaborations with both the leading autism researchers of today and within the community of these Weatherstone fellows. As the largest science and advocacy organization, we have found that collaboration is key to the most significant research advances in the study of autism."

Several of the proposed training projects focus on mouse models. Ryan Ash, under mentors Stelios Smirnakis and Huda Zoghbi at Baylor College of Medicine will investigate imaging neuronal structure and function in a reversible mouse mode for autism. Jessica Hauser at Harvard University will work under mentor Bernardo Sabatini to study perturbations of synaptic plasticity and intrinsic excitability to aid in the discovery of a common synaptic phenotype among ASDs and facilitate generation of effective therapies for individuals suffering from autism. Mehreen Kouser will work with mentor Craig Powell at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center at Dallas to establish how shank3 mutation affects autism-relevant behaviors.

Other 2010 felllows are investigating individuals throughout the full age range of ASD from children through adolesence and adulthood. At the University of Nebraska at Omaha, Joshua Haworth will work with mentors Nick Stergiou and Wayne Fisher to evaluate response of children with ASD to an oscillating point of light, studying deficits in the perception and production of motion, setting the stage for future investigations of very early identification of risk for autism, as well as the establishment of early diagnosis criteria.

Petya Radoeva at the State University of New York Upstate Medical University will use non-invasive neuroimaging to study older youth with 22.a11.2 deletion syndrome as she evaluates their social cognition abilities such as their ability to infer what another person thinks in certain situations under the mentorship of Wendy Kates. At the adult end of the ASD spectrum, Vanessa Hus Bal will work with mentor Catherine Lord at the University of Michigan to develop and refine diagnostic instruments for use with adults with ASD.

The critical role parents can play in advancing their children's skills is evident in Stephanie Patterson work at the University of California, Los Angeles under mentor Connie Kasari, as she develops a novel parent-directed intervention to enhance language development in nonverbal children with ASD.

Lastly, Esther Berko will work with mentor John Greally at Albert Einstein College of Medicine of Yeshiva University to conduct a topical human genetic study. Performing comprehensive analysis on the genomes of children with ASD born to parents of advanced age Berko will evaluate the role of age-related genetic variations, specifically aneuploidy (or abnormal numbers of chromosomes) and uniparental disomy (where both chromosome copies come from one parent), in the risk for ASD


Contact: Jane E. Rubinstein
Autism Speaks

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