Funding supports early detection and intervention of autism

$2.08M grant will support a national study led by prominent UAlberta researcher

Shelby Soke - 27 April 2017

A diagnosis of autism has a lifelong impact on children and their families. Research has shown that early intervention goes a long way to help children reach their potential, but what if autism could be detected sooner?

An international study led from Edmonton will improve early detection of autism spectrum disorder (ASD) and establish effective interventions that can be implemented in infancy. The multi-site longitudinal study was recently awarded a three-year $2.08M grant as part of the Azrieli Neuro-developmental Research Program, in partnership with Brain Canada (a foundation which receives financial support from Health Canada through the Canada Brain Research Fund).

Lonnie Zwaigenbaum, professor of pediatrics and Stollery Children's Hospital Foundation Chair in Autism at the University of Alberta, and his team aim to identify the earliest signs of autism so they can detect and diagnose autism earlier and have meaningful interventions to offer young children who show early signs of ASD.

"Autism affects people throughout their lives, we're beginning to recognize autism as a lifespan condition. Even though our research focuses on early development and infancy, people with autism spend most of their lives in adulthood," says Zwaigenbaum. "Providing early diagnosis and intervention could change the course of autism and maximize ability and quality of life."

The focus on emotional regulation and attention control allows researchers to work with infants early in life and understand the relationship between those early processes and later communication development. This will inform intervention not only at the infant stage but also as children get older, and will open up a new area of focus for intervention.

Co-led by investigators Jessica Brian from the University of Toronto, and Susan Bryson and Isabel Smith from Dalhousie University, the grant also supports a clinical trial aimed at improving existing intervention approaches that the group, including Zwaigenbaum, have reported on.

Lonnie Zwaigenbaum

The trial will compare their toddler intervention-the Social ABCs-,provided on its own, to the Social ABCs combined with a computerized intervention that might kick start infants' ability to become more flexible in their attentional control. The researchers are hoping the computerized intervention will enhance effects of the Social ABCs and help reduce the risk of, and ultimately prevent, disability related to ASD.

The Brain Canada-Azrieli Foundation grant also allows the Canadian group to collaborate with researchers in the United Kingdom and Israel to further understand early developmental trajectories in ASD.

"This project builds on 15 years of previous research where we learned a lot about ASD early in life, but allows us to shift the focus to some new questions and build some new technologies to understand autism and develop new collaborations with international partners," says Zwaigenbaum. "The international collaboration will really help take the research forward."

Brain innovation nation-wide

The funding is part of anApril 25, 2017 announcement by the Honourable Jane Philpott, Minister of Health, where she announced 17 other new brain research projects, involving more than 200 researchers, under the Canada Brain Research Fund, a public-private research fund administered by the Brain Canada Foundation.

Through the Canada Brain Research Fund, a total of $29 million in public-private brain research funding will be awarded to 18 recipients across Canada. The Government of Canada provided more than $14 million towards the projects, which will help to improve the health and quality of life of Canadians affected by brain diseases and disorders, such as depression, stroke, Alzheimer's disease, Multiple Sclerosis, autism and Parkinson's disease.