NIEHS/EPA CEHCs: Center for Children’s Environmental Health (CCEH) - UC Davis
Autism is a complex developmental disability which affects a person’s ability to communicate and interact with others. It is estimated that about 1 in 110 children in the United States are diagnosed with autism. To increase our understanding on the causes of neurodevelopmental disorders such as autism and accelerate the discovery of treatment strategies, researchers at this center study how environmental exposures to toxins interact with a person’s genes and immune system to influence the risk and severity of autism.
The center’s research focuses on the roles of environmental factors, genes, and the immune system in a person’s susceptibility to autism. Through both epidemiological and rodent models, the center’s scientists are looking into how environmental triggers affect brain development. They are also examining how biological markers, such as those related to immune system dysfunction, could help clarify why some children develop these disorders. Hypotheses being tested include whether disorders such as autism are related to exposure to a wide range of environmental toxicants including methylmercury and halogenated organics (Polychlorinated Biphenyls (PCBs) and Polybrominated Diphenyl Ethers (PBDEs). Ultimately, their aim is to improve autism diagnosis and treatment and better inform the public about managing and preventing developmental disorders such as autism.
- Research Projects
Project 1: Environmental Epidemiology of Autism
In this project, researchers build upon study findings on molecular and immune system factors associated with autism found in 2-5 year olds participating in the CHARGE (Childhood Autism Risks from Genetics and Environment) and initiate a new epidemiologic study, MARBLES (Markers of Autism Risk in Babies-Learning Early Signs), that is enrolling pregnant women who already have a child with autism. Under this new project, researchers are following the younger sibling from pregnancy through early childhood. Researchers are considering if immune function differences between participants in the CHARGE study are maintained over time. They are also looking at the mechanisms responsible for the immune function variation in the MARBLES study participants.
Project Leader: Irva Hertz-Picciotto, Ph.D., Robin Hansen, Ph.D., Cheryl Walker, Ph.D., Sally Ozonoff, Ph.D., Deborah Bennett, Ph.D., UC Davis
Project 2: Immunological Susceptibility of Autism
This project tests the hypothesis that autistic children have heightened susceptibility to environmental triggers because of defects in their immune systems. The project uses data from the CHARGE and MARBLES studies.
The goal of this project is to examine the effects of environmental chemicals on immune function in children with autism. In addition, the center is working to identify the chemicals that cause an autoimmune response in both the maternal population and their children. While those chemicals are identified, researchers plan to bring back the participants of the CHARGE study to examine the immune function factors they had observed and studied previously.
Project Leader: Judith Van de Water, Ph.D., Paul Ashwood, Ph.D., UC Davis
Project 3: Neurodevelopmental Toxicology of Autism
This project uses mice to take a closer look at how immune system function and early exposure to environmental toxins interact in a developing organism.
The overall goal of this project is to determine if early life exposures to environmental chemicals contributes to the onset and/or development of neurodevelopmental disorders such as autism in children. Researchers are also looking to determine whether susceptibility intensifies the toxicity of environmental toxicants and increases the risk for developmental problems. This project uses mice to take a closer look at how the immune system functions and how early exposure to environmental toxins interact in a developing organism. Understanding the way that disorders are caused by such chemicals is a vital part of learning how to lessen or even eliminate the harm they cause.
Project Leader: Isaac N. Pessah, Ph.D., Robert Berman, Ph.D., Mari Golub, Ph.D., Judith Van de Water, Ph.D.,UC Davis
Primary Environmental Exposures: Neurotoxicants and immunotoxicants, including mercury and halogenated organics (PCBs and PBDEs)
Primary Health Outcomes: Autism and related neurodevelopmental disorders