Valley study seeks link between autism, environment

HARLINGEN (Aug. 3, 2011) — Hoping to untangle how toxins and other environmental factors might affect whether a child develops autism, researchers from The University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio are recruiting for a new study in the Rio Grande Valley.

Researchers are seeking Mexican-American children born between 2006 and 2009, along with their biological mothers. Each child must either be developmentally typical with no chronic medical problems or have an established diagnosis of an autism spectrum disorder. At this time, researchers can accommodate only participants who can comfortably communicate in English.
Anyone interested in participating in the study can call 855-881-6121.

Mothers will attend three appointments in Harlingen at the clinical research unit of the Regional Academic Health Center (RAHC), a campus of the UT Health Science Center. After completing the final appointment, participants will receive a $250 payment.

During the first two sessions, mothers will provide information on what their children may have been exposed to through their environment. The women also will get instructions on collecting physical samples from their children, including hair and any teeth that have naturally fallen out.

In the third session, mothers will be joined by their children, who will be guided through simple play-like activities while their behaviors and communication are observed.

“Our hope in the future is to analyze these samples and try to find that link between autism and environment,” said Beatriz Tapia, M.D., M.P.H., field investigator for the study and a faculty associate in the Department of Family & Community Medicine at the School of Medicine of the Health Science Center.

Dr. Tapia is working with principal investigator Raymond Palmer, Ph.D., and co-investigator Claudia Miller, M.D. Both are from the Health Science Center’s Department of Family & Community Medicine, where Dr. Palmer is an associate professor and Dr. Miller is a professor.

The current study is a pilot project with funding for 10 developmentally typical and 10 autistic children through the Institute for Integration of Medicine and Science (IIMS), which bridges research and clinical activities at the UT Health Science Center. IIMS is funded through a Clinical and Translational Science Award (CTSA) from the National Institutes of Health.

The pilot study is intended to validate the research methods. Researchers are seeking additional funding to expand the study to hundreds of participants.

The autism spectrum primarily consists of three disorders: classic autism, Asperger syndrome and pervasive developmental disorder not otherwise specified, sometimes called atypical autism. Those diagnosed with autism spectrum disorders generally exhibit repetitive behaviors or interests and have difficulties with communication and social interaction.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, an average of one in 110 U.S. children has an autism spectrum disorder. The diagnosis is much more common in boys than girls. Hispanics are less likely than non-Hispanic whites to be diagnosed with autism, although it’s unclear whether Hispanics are less susceptible or simply going undiagnosed.

Past research has shown that Hispanics with autism are typically diagnosed later than autistic children of other ethnicities. Autism can often be diagnosed as early as 18 months, and early intervention has been shown to improve outcomes.

Juan Reyna, RN, BSN, MBA, senior manager of the RAHC’s clinical research unit, said it is essential to make clinical studies like this one available in the Valley so that the region’s people and specific health concerns are represented in scientific knowledge: “Those who participate in clinical studies at the RAHC are helping to create new knowledge that will be important to future generations of Valley residents.”

The University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio, one of the country’s leading health sciences universities, ranks in the top 3 percent of all institutions worldwide receiving federal funding. Research and other sponsored program activity totaled $228 million in fiscal year 2010. The university’s schools of medicine, nursing, dentistry, health professions and graduate biomedical sciences have produced approximately 26,000 graduates. The $744 million operating budget supports eight campuses in San Antonio, Laredo, Harlingen and Edinburg. For more information on the many ways “We make lives better®,” visit

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