Two doctors reviewing brain scans.
Coveted cash: Nine teams have won multimillion-dollar grants for autism research.

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After long wait, ‘ACE’ announcement delivers mixed news

The National Institutes of Health (NIH) announced the winners of the Autism Centers of Excellence grants. Grantees split a pot of nearly $100 million.

By Hannah Furfaro
8 September 2017 | 3 min read
This article is more than five years old.
Neuroscience—and science in general—is constantly evolving, so older articles may contain information or theories that have been reevaluated since their original publication date.

The National Institutes of Health (NIH) announced yesterday that four autism research networks and five centers will share a pot of nearly $100 million over the next five years. The grants, called the Autism Centers of Excellence (ACE) awards, are among the most coveted in autism research and are given every five years.

The announcement ends months of tense speculation about the fate of the applications. Some researchers feared proposed cuts to the NIH budget would change the agency’s priorities.

At least one winner is relieved the wait is over. “Nice to know we actually got funded,” says Joseph Piven, professor of psychiatry at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Piven’s team won a network grant in 2012 — the last time the grants were awarded — and again this year.

Although the total pot is roughly the same as in the previous cycle, the mix of grant types is significantly different: The agency funded three centers and eight collaborative networks in the previous round. Each grant is about $2.25 to $2.5 million per year for five years.

A spokesperson for the NIH declined to explain why the proportion of centers and networks has flipped.

“I am not sure whether this distribution reflected the distribution of submissions, or any differential in the science proposed in centers relative to networks, or some other factor,” says Ami Klin, director of the Marcus Autism Center in Atlanta. Klin won a center grant in both rounds to work with infants at high risk for autism.

Another center funded in 2012 also won funding for another five years. At that center, located at the University of California, Los Angeles, scientists seek to better understand social communication and sensorimotor processing in people with autism.

The funds also support new centers at Yale University, Duke University and the University of California, Davis. The Duke center, led by Geraldine Dawson and Scott Kollins, aims to study children who have both autism and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.

“Children with both conditions are 30 times more likely to receive a diagnosis of autism after age 6,” says Dawson, professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences. “We want to understand why these children are being missed, and develop more effective treatments.”

Tailored treatments:

The group at Davis, led by David Amaral, aims to identify subgroups of autism and develop tailored treatments. This is the first time Amaral has won a center grant.

“The exciting thing about this new center is that we have entered the era when we are attempting targeted treatments with children who have very specific symptom profiles,” says Amaral, director of research at the university’s MIND Institute.

The agency also added two new networks to the roster. One of them, led by Diana Robins at the A.J. Drexel Autism Institute in Philadelphia, aims to investigate early detection of autism.

Robins says she was “ecstatic” to receive the official notification of award Thursday morning. Her team has won $11.4 million over five years, which is “certainly a larger award than any I’ve received in the past,” she says.

Helen Tager-Flusberg of Boston University, who won a center grant in 2012, applied for a network grant this time around to continue studying minimally verbal children. She did not receive funding.