UC Davis EHSC Center Members Leading Autism Research

UC Davis EHSC Center Members Leading Autism Research

UC Davis EHSC Center Members Leading Autism Research

Learn about potential causes, new findings, and risk factors for autism spectrum disorder, and explore groundbreaking studies from Dr. Hertz-Picciotto, Dr. LaSalle, Dr. Schmidt, and Dr. Van de Water.

This April, in honor of Autism Awareness Month, we want to spotlight our members’ research on autism. In a recent report, the CDC estimated that 1 in 36 children in the U.S. are diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder (ASD). ASD is a complex and multifaceted condition that affects communication, social interaction, and behavior. While the exact cause of autism is not yet fully understood, research has identified a number of potential genetic and environmental risk factors.

Many of our EHSC (Environmental Health Sciences Center) scientists lead or participate in major studies of ASD in collaboration with researchers nationwide. These studies include:

marbles in kids hands
MARBLES (Markers of Autism Risk in Babies – Learning Early Signs)

MARBLES follows mothers throughout and after their pregnancies, allowing the researchers to obtain information about the pre-natal and post-natal environment to which the baby is exposed. By gathering information in real-time, the researchers are able to increase the accuracy of the information collected. They will be able to understand better possible pre-natal and post-partum biological and environmental exposures and risk factors that may contribute to the development of autism by collecting data in this format. 

child on floor playing with blocks
CHARGE, CHARGE II, ReCHARGE  (Childhood Autism Risks from Genetics and the Environment)

The CHARGE study was the first comprehensive population-based study of environmental factors contributing to autism. The study began in 2002 and addressed a wide array of environmental exposures, susceptibility factors, and their interplay. It continued in 2007, addressing the possible role of exposures during the peri-conceptional, gestational, perinatal, and early childhood periods, including infections, assisted reproductive technology, medications, pesticides, brominated flame retardants, and metals. Re-CHARGE, which started in 2016, followed the original CHARGE cohort to determine environmental chemical and non-chemical stressors and resiliency factors that are associated with neurodevelopmental outcomes at ages 8-12 years (pre-adolescent) and 15-19 years (mid-to-late adolescence). In 2020, CHARGE II, began to generate a body of new results on prenatal exposures, such as pesticides, air pollution, medications, and maternal nutrition, in relation to ASD. 

In observance of the National Autism Month, we compiled a short list of publications from a few of EHSC's researchers:

 Irva Hertz-Picciotto

Dr. Hertz-Picciotto is the director of the EHSC and a professor in the Department of Public Health Sciences. Dr. Hertz-Picciotto has been studying autism since 2002 when she launched the CHARGE Study. A few years later, she also took a leading role in MARBLES with the goal of searching for early environmental and biological predictors of autism, starting in pregnancy.

Below are a few of of Dr. Hertz-Picciotto’s autism related publications:

Check out this video where Dr. Irva Hertz-Picciotto discusses Autism risk and exposure to agricultural pesticides in the CHARGE Study.

Janine LaSalle 

Dr. LaSalle is EHSC Deputy Director and a professor in the UC Davis Health Department of Medical Microbiology and Immunology. The LaSalle Lab focuses on studying the role of epigenetics in ASD disorders with a known genetic cause as well as ASD with unknown causes and developing biomarkers for ASD diagnoses by using non-invasively obtained tissues.

Below are a few of Dr. LaSalle’s autism related publications:

Rebecca Schmidt

Dr. Schmidt is the co-lead of the EHSC IHFSC Core and associate professor in Public Health Sciences. Her work focuses on how the interaction of early-life exposures, genetic susceptibility, and molecular mechanisms influences ASD. She has led or co-led several epidemiologic studies, primarily focused on gestational and childhood development, including CHARGE, the B-SAFE (Bio-Apecimen Assessment of Fire Effects) wildfire pregnancy cohort, and the MARBLES study.

Below are a few of Dr. Schmidt’s autism related publications:

Check out this video where Dr. Rebecca Schmidt discusses prenatal vitamin use and autism risk.

Judy Van de Water

Dr. Judy Van de Water is the co-director of EHSC's Pilot Project Program. and a professor in the Department of Internal Medicine at the UC Davis School of Medicine. Dr. Van de Water’s focus is on the maternal immune system’s effect on ASD.  The Van de Water laboratory focuses on how the mechanisms in the nervous and immune systems interact in neurodevelopmental disorders, including ASD. They have also been able to identify maternal autoantibodies that are specific to a child’s risk of developing autism.

Below are a few of Dr. Van de Water’s autism related publications:

Check out this video where an Autism study of maternal antibodies is explained Dr. Judy Van de Water

The prevalence of autism spectrum disorder (ASD) in the U.S. highlights the importance of ongoing research to understand the causes, risk factors, and potential treatments for ASD. UC Davis Environmental Health Sciences Center members, including Dr. Hertz-Picciotto, Dr. LaSalle, Dr. Van de Water, and Dr. Schmidt, are leading research efforts in this area. Their studies are contributing to a better understanding of the environmental and genetic risk factors associated with ASD and identifying potential biomarkers for early detection and intervention. As we recognize Autism Awareness Month, it is crucial to continue supporting research efforts that will lead to a better understanding of ASD.

Angelina Angelo (Staff Image)

Angelina is the Environmental Health Sciences Center undergraduate writer for the communications department and a student at UC Davis studying Human Development. She is an aspiring writer with a focus on science communication.