Location data to help study environmental links to autism

Location data to help study environmental links to autism

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US, November 04, 2014: University of Michigan researchers will use a new $1.6 million federal grant to probe potential social and environmental links to autism, collecting location-specific information from tens of thousands of affected individuals and their families nationwide.

The National Center for Geospatial Medicine, based at U-M's School of Natural Resources and Environment, is funded through the National Institute of Mental Health for the three-year autism spectrum disorder study, which began October 1.

It's the first effort to improve and expand a large national disease registry by adding self-reported patient information that is geographically linked to relevant social and environmental stressors, said Marie Lynn Miranda, SNRE dean and the project's principal investigator.

The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that one in 68 American children has been identified with autism spectrum disorder, a group of developmental disabilities that can cause significant social, communications and behavioural challenges.

The federal government operates the National Database for Autism Research, a repository of clinical, genetic and imaging data from nearly 80,000 research participants with autism spectrum disorder. Currently, NDAR is unable to link data about individual research participants to their histories of exposure to various social and environmental stressors that might have influenced early brain development, resulting in changes commonly associated with autism spectrum disorder.

The U-M project will help remedy the situation by creating a website to gather voluntarily submitted, confidential information about large numbers of affected individuals and their families.

On the website, participants will complete a questionnaire that asks where the family has lived and requests a basic medical history of the affected child. The voluntarily submitted information under the U-M project will be used to link the child to records in the National Database for Autism Research. Geographic information provided by affected individuals and their families will then be tied to social and environmental data gathered from federal, state and local agencies and organisations.

Social and demographic data from the US Census Bureau and the American Community Survey will also be used, while environmental data will focus initially on air-quality measurements, including ambient levels of air pollutants.

The U-M team will ask autism researchers to suggest social and environmental exposures that should be included in the database. Information about land use, pesticide use, water sources and quality, geologic formations and nearby industrial facilities could be added, for example. Additional personal information from consenting participants could include questions about diet, immunisations and housing construction materials.

The U-M-based National Center for Geospatial Medicine brings to the project wide-ranging expertise on topics such as geographic information systems, geospatial analysis, human subjects research, institutional review board approvals, Certificates of Confidentiality, data security, Internet technologies, and social and environmental datasets relevant to autism research.

NCGM/SNRE will partner with U-M Information and Technology Services on the project. Omnitec Solutions Inc. operates the National Database for Autism Research and contracted with the University of Michigan for the work.

Source: University of Michigan