The University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center has launched a brain tissue collection program to support autism research.
The medical school is one of four sites nationwide that will collect, store and distribute brain tissue to scientists studying the disease, which affects an estimated one in 68 children.
UT Southwestern is an inaugural member of Autism BrainNet, an initiative created last year by The Simons Foundation, Autism Speaks and the Autism Science Foundation. The group also created an outreach program and tissue donation registration site called It Takes Brains.
UT Southwestern will collect autistic and normal brain tissue samples in the South Central and Midwest regions of the U.S. to be distributed to researchers around the world.
“The recognized incidence of autism has increased dramatically over the past 10 years,” said Dr. Carol Tamminga, chair of the Department of Psychiatry at UT Southwestern. “Because we know so little about the molecular brain mechanisms of autism, research with this tissue is extremely important so that we can learn about its neural networks and identify new targets for novel therapies.”
The Autism BrainNet initiative will also enhance studies that are underway on autism-related conditions such as Fragile X syndrome. Dr. Kimberly Huber, a professor of neuroscience; Dr. Jay Gibson, an associate professor of neuroscience; and Dr. John Sweeney, a professor of psychiatry and pediatrics, have conducted research on Fragile X gene mutation at UT Southwestern.
Other institutions participating in Autism BrainNet are the University of California, Davis MIND Institute, the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in New York and the Harvard University/Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston. More sites are expected to join in the future.
The focus of the It Takes Brains website is to educate families affected by autism about brain tissue donation. Researchers nationwide have already discovered that:
- Children with autism have an overabundance of nerve cells in an area of the brain involved in social and communication skills.
- The brains of autistic people have fewer oxytocin receptors than the brains of unaffected people. Oxytocin is a hormone that has an influence on social behavior.
There appear to be structural differences in the brains of people with autism, including differences in the number and size of neurons and the presence of inflammation.