5K raises funds for autism research

The money will help the Autism Initiative expand its clinic and recruit researchers.

SaturdayâÄôs cold weather did not deter the more than 200 people from congregating outside Northrop Auditorium to participate in the 5K Run for ResearchâÄôs fourth annual event. Participation fees went toward the clinical and research efforts of the Autism Spectrum Disorders Initiative , based at the University of Minnesota. While it is not yet known whether autism spectrum disorder is preventable, the autism initiative is invested in furthering the understanding of the disorder that affects hundreds of thousands of children in the United States. Before announcing the start of the race, autism initiative Director Dr. Scott Selleck thanked all the participants for caring about the initiativeâÄôs goals. âÄúWe canâÄôt fix it if we donâÄôt understand it,âÄù he said, referring to ASD. Neuroscience and physiology senior Nick Sausen lead the event this year, coordinating with the College of Biological Sciences Student Board since last fall. The event drew 227 registered participants and raised more than $4,000 to be used by the autism initiative.

The Autism Initiative

The autism initiative began in 2007 as a collaborative effort between University faculty and community members, many of whom had children with autism. The $2 million the initiative raised in the first year will be used to improve clinical capabilities and recruit researchers who could aid in the effort to understand the causes for ASD and how to diagnose it earlier. Money raised at the 5K will go toward such projects. Initiative collaborators saw the University as an excellent site for further autism research because of a wide range of disciplines that could be involved. Prior to the establishment of the initiative, Selleck had been researching the genetic component of ASD. He said the genetic complexities of the disorder have made researching it a difficult task. Selleck uses DNA samples from children with and without ASD to look at areas of the genome especially susceptible to deletions and duplications. He said this could help find the causes of the disorder. SelleckâÄôs lab is also working on a second project that uses fruit flies to study the nervous system. Because the fruit fly nervous system is similar, yet simpler, to a humanâÄôs, it can be studied more easily. The difficulty in beginning research like this, Selleck said, is that most granting agencies are unwilling to invest without seeing preliminary findings. That is why funds raised by the autism initiative are used to entice other researchers to come to the University. With the start-up funds, those researchers have the potential to gather initial data that will help them get further funding elsewhere. One such recruit, Dr. Amy Esler , assistant professor of pediatrics, started in November 2008. Initiative funds given to Esler, which directly led to her decision to come to the University, are only enough to pay for research one day each week. During that day, she spends time working with samples acquired in the clinic and writing grants for more funding. The other four days are spent diagnosing in the Autism Spectrum Disorders Clinic. Esler works alongside Dr. Robin Rumsey , a neuro-psychologist, identifying children with the disorder and recommending treatment. Rumsey said children with ASD can be identified by the lack of enjoyment found in interacting with other children. These kids often avoid eye contact and have language delays and restricted interests. Esler said their goal is to find ways to diagnose children as early as possible. âÄúWe have a really critical window for things like language development and social development,âÄù Esler said. âÄúUnfortunately, a lot of our diagnostic tools, and even clinically, itâÄôs really hard to provide a formal diagnosis before age 2 or 3.âÄù Identifying factors that will likely contribute to a childâÄôs development of autism will allow doctors to introduce methods of building verbal, cognitive and social skills so the child can function as normally as possible, she said.