Stanford Medicine scientists awarded $10 million for sleep and autism research

A group of Stanford Medicine scientists have received about $10 million from the National Institutes of Health’s Autism Centers of Excellence program. The funding, announced by the NIH on September 6, will support research into the relationship between sleep dysregulation and autism symptoms.

This is the first time that Stanford University has been designated a center of excellence in autism by this NIH program, created in 2007 and renewed every five years. Stanford University is one of nine institutions to receive the designation in this funding round.

Autism is a developmental disorder that affects 1 in 54 children nationwide. It is characterized by deficits in social communication, sensory aberrations, stereotyped behaviors and restricted interests. Lack of sleep is a common aspect of the disorder, the researchers explained.

Up to 80% of children with autism spectrum disorders experience sleep disturbances, including difficulty falling asleep and difficulty sleeping through the night. These sleep disturbances are one of the most distressing symptoms reported by parents of children with autism. In turn, poor sleep is associated with exacerbated severity of core autism symptoms, including repetitive behaviors and social and communication difficulties.

Joachim Hallmayer, MD, principal investigator, professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Stanford Medicine

The new prize will fund three research teams and their projects:

  • Ruth O’Hara, PhD, Lowell W. and Josephine Q. Berry Professor of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences, and Senior Associate Dean for Research in the School of Medicine, and Makoto Kawai, MD, Clinical Associate Professor of Psychiatry and of Behavioral Sciences, will conduct a study that characterizes sleep and brain activity in autistic children compared to typically developing children.

    Researchers will assess sleep fragmentation; sleep architecture, which includes the amount and duration of REM and non-REM sleep; and daytime brain activity, measured by awake, resting-state electroencephalography, in both groups. Scientists will investigate whether any aspect of sleep dysregulation is associated with autism symptoms or cognitive functioning.

  • Antonio Hardan, MD, professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences as well as director of the Autism and Developmental Disabilities Clinic at Stanford Medicine Children’s Health, will lead a team studying the effects of three sleep-inducing drugs on the Sleep architecture, circadian rhythm, and sleep quality in children and adolescents with autism. This team will also investigate whether sleep changes in autistic people taking the drugs lead to changes in their autism symptoms.
  • Philippe Mourrain, PhD, associate professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences, will use zebrafish models of autism to examine brain activity during sleep and relate this data to eye movements, heart rate and muscle movements volunteers. The zebrafish will also be used to collect detailed information on how sleep-inducing drugs affect the brain in autism.

“Our teams will, for the first time, test to what extent dysregulated sleep, including sleep fragmentation, is central to ASD development and symptoms, and whether normalizing sleep alleviates these symptoms,” O said. ‘Hara, who will also lead the grant’s administrative core with Hallmayer.

“This research has the potential to offer significant relief to children with ASD and their parents or caregivers,” O’Hara said.

Other researchers contributing to this effort include Lawrence Fung, MD, PhD, assistant professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences, who directs the ACE Dissemination Core; Booil Jo, PhD, associate professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences, who directs the ACE Analytical Core; and Jennifer Phillips, PhD, clinical professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences, who directs the ACE assessment core.

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