What will reputedly be the world’s largest multidisciplinary center for autism research, diagnosis, treatment and prevention will be built in the Jerusalem area, first in a temporary facility within less than a year and then on a $200 million campus. This was announced at a Wednesday press conference at the Crowne Plaza Jerusalem Hotel by businessman Joshua Weinstein and researchers from New York’s Montefiore Medical Center University Hospital of the Albert Einstein College of Medicine and the State University of New York at Stony Brook.
The effort to find an integrated answer to autism, whose symptoms usually appear by the age of 18 months, began in 2004 when Weinstein, an orthodox Jew, set up the non-profit organization Icare4autism (International Center for Autism Research and Education), which now has offices in Manhattan and Jerusalem. The mission is to discover the causes of the complex disorder and build consensus among researchers, practitioners and family members about the diagnosis and treatment of people with autism spectrum disorders.
Weinstein said he has no family connection to autism but coincidentally met Jewish families in New York whose children were diagnosed and sought ways to help them. In 1998, the businessman – who owns and runs a home healthcare company in New York – established Shema Kolainu (Hear Our Voices), a school that uses a comprehensive application of behavior analysis to the schooling of children. A similar facility, Tishma, was later opened in Jerusalem.
Autism is a disorder of neural development characterized by impaired social interaction and communication and by restricted and repetitive behavior. It affects information processing in the brain by changing how nerve cells and their synapses connect and organize, but the process is not well understood. The spectrum of autistic disorders runs from mild to severe.
Weinstein said Israel has excellent researchers and therapists in the field, but like many countries, it does not have a coordinated effort bringing together research, diagnosis, treatment and prevention. “Even the Health and Education Ministries are not working together,” he said. “I believe that if people work together, they can facilitate faster, better research, and the earlier children are diagnosed, the better off they will be able to cope with life.”
The new center – whose establishment is being encouraged by Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat – will promote such interdisciplinary work, he said.
Dr. Eric Hollander of the Montefiore Medical Center and chairman of its advisory board said he has been involved in autism research for almost two decades. Many scientists have “wasted a lot of time and hundreds of millions of dollars” studying large groups of people with autism to find out the common denominator. But Hollander said he took a different approach, studying the genomes of many individuals to identify the causes of their specific disorder.
He is conducting research in oxytocin, the neurotransmitter in the brain that is known to trigger labor and “letdown” for the start of breastfeeding as well as positive feelings of trust and pairbonding in certain animals and in humans. He and his colleagues are now developing ways to affect the central oxytocin system to deal with repetitive behaviors in some autism patients. But he does not believe the hormone is the answer for all autistic people.
Dr. Eli Hatchwell, director of the genomics core facility at Stony Brook, who will chair genetics for the Icare4autism international conference scheduled for Jerusalem in July, said that there is no simple cause, either genetic or environmental, for autism. Numerous genes have been discovered so far, and he expects that a total of over 100 will be discovered as the cause for between 80 to 90 percent of them. But only a few defective genes will be responsible for any one case, he said. One genetic marker may increase the risk of a baby having autism by 1% to 2%, he said.
Autism was first named in the 1940s, and prevalence used to be regarded as one in 500 children, but today it is about one in 100 around the world, and as high as one in 60 or so in boys. With the sequencing of peoples’ personal genomes becoming much cheaper – maybe even down to $10,000 per individual – it will be easier to identify risks of autism when all the responsible genes are identified, and then non-genetic cases will more easily be found, Hatchwell said.
Non-hereditary influences on genes – how they are read and how their expression is influenced – will also be studied to see if such abnormalities influence how genes are transcribed and how the people respond to treatment. Hatchwell suggested that eventually one could probably test newborns for autism genes and give treatments that would prevent it from appearing.
The new campus, when built from private donations, is envisioned as having not only labs and local as well as visiting scientists but also a zoo, a horseriding facility and a swimming pool built specifically for treating autistic children early.