A group of Stanford Medicine scientists has received approximately $10 million from the National Institutes of Health’s Autism Centers of Excellence program. The funding, announced by the NIH on September 6, will support research into the relationship between sleep disorders and autism symptoms.
This is the first time Stanford University has been designated an Autism Center of Excellence by this NIH program, which began in 2007 and is renewed every five years. Stanford University is one of nine institutions to receive this award this grant cycle.
Autism is a developmental disorder that affects 1 in 54 children nationwide. It is characterized by deficits in social communication, sensory aberrations, stereotypical behavior and restricted interests. Poor sleep is a common aspect of the disorder, the researchers explained.
“Up to 80% of children with autism spectrum disorders have sleep disorders, including difficulty falling asleep and staying asleep,” said Dr. Joachim Hallmayer, lead investigator for the award and Professor of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at Stanford Medicine. “These sleep disturbances are one of the most distressing symptoms reported by parents of children with autism. Poor sleep, in turn, is associated with exacerbation of the core symptoms of autism, including repetitive behaviors and social and communication difficulties.”
The new prize will fund three research teams and their projects:
- Ruth O’Hara, PhD, Lowell W. and Josephine Q. Berry Professor of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences and Senior Associate Dean for Research at the School of Medicine, and Makoto Kawai, MD, Clinical Associate Professor of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences, will lead a study , which characterizes sleep and brain activity in children with autism compared to children with normal development.
Researchers will assess sleep fragmentation; sleep architecture, which includes the amount and timing of REM and non-REM sleep; and daytime brain activity, measured by electroencephalography in the waking-resting state, in the two groups. Scientists will investigate whether any aspect of sleep dysregulation is linked to autism symptoms or cognitive function.
- Antonio Hardan, MD, professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences and director of the Autism and Developmental Disabilities Clinic at Stanford Medicine Children’s Health, will lead a team studying the effects of three sleep-promoting drugs on sleep architecture, circadian rhythm and sleep quality children and adolescents with autism. This team will also study whether sleep changes in autistic individuals taking the medication lead to changes in their autism symptoms.
- Philippe Mourrain, PhD, Associate Professor of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences, will use zebrafish models of autism to study brain-wide activity during sleep and link that data to eye movement, heart rate and voluntary muscle movement. The zebrafish is also being used to gather detailed information on how sleep-inducing drugs affect the brain in autism.
“Our teams will test for the first time the extent to which dysregulated sleep, including sleep fragmentation, is central to the development and symptoms of ASD and whether normalizing sleep alleviates these symptoms,” said O’Hara, who will also lead the administrative core of the scholarship at Hallmayer.
“This research has the potential to offer tremendous relief to children with ASD and their parents or caregivers,” O’Hara said.
Other researchers contributing to this effort are Lawrence Fung, MD, PhD, assistant professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences who leads the ACE dissemination core; Booil Jo, PhD, associate professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences who leads the analytical core of ACE; and Jennifer Phillips, PhD, clinical professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences who leads the ACE Assessment Core.