Our Commitment to Excellence in Autism Research

As the Dean of the UNC School of Medicine (UNC SOM) and the CEO of UNC Health Care, I am surrounded by the best and brightest minds, all of whom work tirelessly to make our vision – to be the nation’s leading public academic health care system – a reality. One way we do that is through our unwavering commitment to research.

According to the CDC, 3.5 million Americans live with an autism spectrum disorder (ASD). In North Carolina alone, it is estimated that over 60,000 people live with ASD. As we celebrate Autism Awareness Month this April, I want to highlight the groundbreaking research the UNC SOM has conducted over the last year.

Last April, UNC SOM helped launch SPARK, the nation’s largest genetic research study for autism to better understand its causes and help usher in an era of personalized medicine and targeted treatment. This nationwide project, led locally by Joseph Piven, MD, and Gabriel Dichter, PhD, will collect information and DNA from 50,000 individuals with autism — along with their families — to better understand the genetics of this condition.

Since then, Piven, director of the Carolina Institute for Developmental Disabilities, and his team have unveiled numerous insights. In February, they published the results of a first-of-its-kind study that used MRIs to map the brains of infants. Using these MRI results, Piven and his team were able to correctly predict 80 percent of those infants who would later be diagnosed with autism at two years of age. Just last month, this team published yet another study which found that many toddlers diagnosed with autism at two years of age had a substantially greater amount of extra-axial cerebrospinal fluid (CSF) at both six months and one year – before diagnosis is possible – pointing to faulty CSF flow as one of the possible causes of autism.

Thanks to Dr. Piven, Dr. Dichter and several others, UNC SOM was awarded $223 million for autism-related research from 2006 to 2015. In the last ten years, 34 UNC departments have been awarded for their respective autism research. These investments make this research possible. Most importantly, it helps bring us closer to tackling some of our world’s most pressing health care challenges.

To learn more about the SPARK initiative, click here.

To learn more about the MRI autism study, click here.

To learn more about the CSF autism study, click here.

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