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UNC Autism Research Earns High National Honors

Three UNC School of Medicine autism research studies led by Joseph Piven, MD, made the end-of-year top research lists of three organizations heavily invested in the advancement of autism research.
Headshot of Joseph Piven, MD, top UNC autism researcher
Joseph Piven, MD

The first study, published in Nature last February, used MRIs to show that the babies who developed autism experienced a hyper-expansion of brain surface area from six to 12 months. Increased growth rate of surface area in the first year of life was linked to increased growth rate of overall brain volume in the second year of life. Brain overgrowth was tied to the emergence of autistic social deficits in the second year.

The second study, published in March, used MRIs to show the differences in cerebral spinal fluid between babies who would develop autism at age 2 and babies who would not develop the condition. The third study, published in June, delineated the differences in brain connections using MRIs and computer algorithms.

Autism speaks listed all three studies in the organization’s Top 10 Autism Studies of 2017, as judged by the leading advocacy group’s science staff and advisors. The selected studies were the ones “that most powerfully advanced understanding, treatment and support for people on the autism spectrum.”

According to Autism Speaks, three UNC studies “most powerfully advanced understanding, treatment and support for people on the autism spectrum.”

Spectrum, a leading source of news and expert opinion on autism research and formerly part of the Simons Foundation Autism Research Initiative, listed two of the studies in its list of ten “Notable Papers in Autism Research in 2017.”

The Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD) selected a few examples of the best innovations made possible through NICHD support, including one of UNC’s autism studies. Last year, the NIH awarded nine research grants totaling more than $100 million for the Autism Centers of Excellence, including the center at UNC.

Piven, the Thomas E. Castelloe Distinguished Professor of Psychiatry in the UNC School of Medicine and director of the Carolina Institute for Developmental Disabilities, is on the executive committee of the UNC Autism Research Center. The goal of the new center is to accelerate the creation of more effective, personalized treatments and interventions for the millions of people with autism spectrum disorder across the lifespan.