The National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS) hosted a virtual forum on autism and the environment. The panel of experts took questions during the live broadcast which lasted just under one hour.

Expert Panel Speakers:

Linda S. Birnbaum, Ph.D., became the Director of the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS), one of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), and the National Toxicology Program (NTP) on January 18, 2009 . In these roles Birnbaum oversees federal funding for biomedical research to discover how the environment influences human health and disease. Several advisory boards and councils provide Birnbaum and NIEHS/ NTP staff with input to accomplish this large task.

Alan Brown, M.D., M.P.H. is a psychiatrist and epidemiologist at Columbia University who specializes in the epidemiology of neurodevelopmental risk factors for autism, schizophrenia and bipolar disorder. A key focus of his work is on biomarker-based in utero and early childhood exposures that are prospectively documented in large population-based birth cohorts. These include a Finnish national birth cohort of 1.5 million pregnancies, from which he developed the Finnish Prenatal Study of Autism (FiPS-A), which has yielded novel findings. They were the first to demonstrate that elevated maternal levels of the inflammatory biomarker C-reactive protein (CRP) during pregnancy was associated with autism in offspring. They’ve also demonstrated associations between autism and maternal persistent organic pollutants, smoking, several perinatal events, and elevated growth velocity of head circumference during infancy. In present and future work, he is examining relationships between other toxic and infectious/immune maternal biomarkers, quantified in maternal sera during pregnancy, and autism. They’ve also assessed the specificity of these risk factors by investigating their relationship to schizophrenia and bipolar disorder and their neuroanatomic and neuropsychological correlates.

Irva Hertz-Picciotto, Ph.D., is an epidemiology professor at UC Davis MIND Institute, and chief of the environmental and Occupational Health. She is an internationally renowned environmental epidemiologist with over 250 scientific publications addressing environmental exposures, including metals, pesticides, air pollutants and endocrine disruptors, their interactions with nutrition, and their influences on pregnancy, the newborn, and child development. In 2002, she turned her attention to autism, launching the CHARGE Study, the first large, comprehensive population-based study of how environmental exposures influence autism, which has led to key discoveries of both risk and protective factors. A few years later she launched MARBLES (Markers of Autism Risk in Babies – Learning Early Signs), to search for early environmental and biologic predictors of autism, the first such study to begin in pregnancy. She also collaborates on the multi-site EARLI study, and was Director of the Northern California Center for the National Children’s Study.

Dr. Hertz-Picciotto sits on editorial boards for four major scientific journals in epidemiology, environmental health, and autism, has held appointments on state, national and international advisory panels to organizations such as the Food Safety in Europe Working Group, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, National Toxicology Program, California Air Resources Board, and NIH Interagency Coordinating Committee on Autism Research, and served as President of two of the largest professional epidemiology societies. She chaired the Expert Panel on CDC’s Vaccine Safety Database for Studies of Autism and Thimerosal and two National Academy of Sciences/Institute of Medicine (IOM) Panels, including two on Agent Orange and Vietnam Veterans and in 2011, the IOM Committee on Breast Cancer and the Environment. Dr. Hertz-Picciotto has taught epidemiologic methods on four continents and mentored over 60 doctoral and postdoctoral scholars.

Cindy Lawler, Ph.D., is acting chief of the Cellular, Organs, and Systems Pathobiology Branch in the Division of Extramural Research and Training. She is the lead NIEHS representative for extramural autism activities. This includes responsibilities as a program official for the NIH-funded Early Autism Risk Longitudinal Investigation (EARLI) study, the Childhood Autism Risk from Genes and Environment (CHARGE) study, the Markers of Autism Risk in Babies-Learning Early Signs (MARBLES), and a multidisciplinary center that addresses environmental contributors to autism.

In addition to her programmatic role in autism activities, Lawler has primary responsibility for the NIEHS extramural portfolio of research in Parkinson’s disease research. She developed and manages the Centers for Neurodegeneration Science Program, which supports highly integrated teams of investigators studying genetic and environmental risks for Parkinson’s disease.

Lawler received her Ph.D. in experimental psychology at Northeastern University and received postdoctoral training in the Brain and Development Research Center at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (UNC-CH).  Prior to joining NIEHS, Lawler was a faculty member in the UNC-CH Department of Psychiatry and the Program in Toxicology and held an adjunct appointment in the Department of Biostatistics. She served as a Principal Investigator on an NIH-supported research grant in behavioral neuroscience, with an emphasis on dopamine receptor pharmacology and development of novel pharmacologic agents to treat diseases and disorders related to altered dopamine neurotransmission.

Avi Reichenberg , Ph.D., is a neuropsychologist and epidemiologist. He is professor of Preventive Medicine and Psychiatry at the Ichan School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in New York, and a Senior Fellow of the Seaver Center for Autism Research and Treatment, New York. His research focuses on understanding how environmental and genetic factors contribute to the etiology of developmental disorders, particularly autism.

Heather E. Volk, Ph.D., M.P.H., is assistant professor of research in the Division of Environmental Health in the Department of Preventive Medicine at the Keck School of Medicine, and a Principal Investigator in the Saban Research Institute at Children’s Hospital Los Angeles.  Her research focuses on the genetic and environmental epidemiology of autism and other neurodevelopmental disorders, as well as more generally on the role of gene-environment interaction in complex disease. Dr. Volk is a graduate of the University Notre Dame and received a Masters in Public Health, concentrating in Epidemiology and Biostatistics, from Boston University, and a doctorate in Public Health Studies, concentrating in Epidemiology, from St. Louis University.  She completed a postdoctoral fellowship in environmental genomics at the University of Southern California.




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