UM-NSU Center for Autism and Related Disabilities Joins Launch of SPARK, Nation’s Largest Autism Research Study

Groundbreaking initiative combines web-based registry with DNA analysis to accelerate autism research and speed discovery of treatments, support

Researchers from the University of Miami – Nova Southeastern University Center for Autism and Related Disabilities (UM-NSU CARD) within the University of Miami (UM) Department of Psychology in Coral Gables, FL, today helped launch SPARK, an online research initiative designed to become the largest autism study ever undertaken in the United States.

Sponsored by the Simons Foundation Autism Research Initiative (SFARI), SPARK will collect information and DNA for genetic analysis from 50,000 individuals with autism — and their families — to advance our understanding of the causes of this condition and to hasten the discovery of supports and treatments.

UM-NSU CARD is one of a select group of 21 leading national research institutions chosen by SFARI to assist with recruitment. Dr. Melissa Hale, clinical assistant professor and her colleagues at the UM College of Arts & Sciences, Dr. Anibal Gutierrez, and Executive Director of UM-NSU CARD Dr. Michael Alessandri, are leading the SPARK effort locally.

Housed in the UM College of Arts & Sciences Department of Psychology, UM-NSU CARD is a state-funded resource and support program dedicated to improving the lives of individuals with autism and related disabilities including deaf-blindness and pervasive developmental disorders.

“SPARK empowers researchers to make new discoveries that will ultimately lead to the development of new supports and treatments to improve lives, which makes it one of the most insightful research endeavors to date, in addition to being the largest genetic research initiative in the U.S.,” says Dr. Hale.

Autism is known to have a strong genetic component. To date, approximately 50 genes have been identified that almost certainly play a role in autism, and scientists estimate that an additional 300 or more are involved. By studying these genes, associated biological mechanisms and how genetics interact with environmental factors, researchers can better understand the condition’s causes, and link them to the spectrum of symptoms, skills and challenges of those affected.

SPARK aims to speed up autism research by inviting participation from this large, diverse autism community, with the goal of including individuals with a professional diagnosis of autism of both sexes and all ages, backgrounds, races, geographic locations and socioeconomic situations.

SPARK will connect participants to researchers, offering them the unique opportunity to impact the future of autism research by joining any of the multiple studies offered through SPARK. The initiative will catalyze research by creating large-scale access to study participants whose DNA may be selectively analyzed for a specific scientific question of interest.

SPARK will also elicit feedback from individuals and parents of children with autism to develop a robust research agenda that is meaningful for them. For more information about SPARK, visit SPARKforAutism.org/card.

 

April 21, 2016