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EARLI Signs of Autism

By Jackie Powder

In the search for the causes of autism, most research has focused on genetics and the environment—separately.

Now, in one of the largest studies of its kind, Bloomberg School scientists are investigating the interplay of biological and environmental components as risk factors for autism, from the earliest stages of child development through the first three years of life.

The School, in partnership with the Kennedy Krieger Institute and the Maryland Department of Education, is one of four field sites in the Early Autism Risk Longitudinal Investigation (EARLI). The study, which began in June and is an NIH Autism Centers of Excellence project, will follow a cohort of up to 1,200 pregnant women who already have one autistic child, which puts a sibling at an elevated risk for autism.

“One emerging theme [in autism] is that if there is an environmental aspect or a gene/environment interaction, those environmental factors that may play a role are likely to happen in utero,” says M. Daniele Fallin, PhD, co-principal investigator of the EARLI study and associate professor of Epidemiology.

The mothers in the study will provide biological samples throughout the project, keep a daily diary on behavior and diet throughout their pregnancy and complete detailed questionnaires. Previous autism research has produced “good evidence” that there is a genetic component to the illness, says Fallin (right). This study seeks to advance understanding of the possible environmental component.

“Unless you can put together both genetic and environmental data on the same people and you can do it over time, it’s going to be very difficult to tease apart” the connections to autism, says Fallin. “That’s never been done before, and that’s why people are very excited about it.”