Current Studies

The following grantees are recipients of grants from The Governor's Council for Medical Research and Treatment of Autism, as part of the Clinical, Translational and Basic Science Research Grant Program. More information about this program can be found at the Department of Health’s website here.

2021 Grantees

Fernando J Velloso

PhD | Rutgers University

Perinatal Interleukin-6 Induced Neuroinflammation and SVZ Progenitor Cell Dysgenesis

Vanessa Bal

PhD | Rutgers University

Treating depression in autistic adults: A feasibility trial of an adapted Behavioral Activation program

Courtney R. McDermott

B.A. | Rutgers University

Early life microbiota dysbiosis and autism: Effects on neurodevelopment and behavioral outcomes and adult behaviors in a genetically defined mouse model related to autism

Damiano Zanotto

PhD | Stevens Institute of Technology

Making Strides Toward Identifying Objective Behavioral Signatures of ASD Severity: A Micro-Movement Gait Analysis Approach (CAUT22ACP004)

James Millonig

PhD | Rutgers University

Genetically distinct ASD subtypes: Is mTOR dysregulation a common mechanism? ( CAUT22ACP006)

Christina Simmons

PhD | Rowan University

Feasibility and Fidelity Testing of a Virtual Reality Parent Training Prototype for Managing Severe Behavior in Children with Autism Spectrum Disorder

Harumi Jyonouchi

PhD | Saint Peter's University Hospital

Biomarkers of innate immune memory in autism spectrum disorders (CAUT22ACP009)

Harvey R Weiss

PhD | Rutgers University

Alterations in mTOR pathway control of cerebral oxygen consumption in a model of autism-tuberous sclerosis (CAUT22ACP010)

SungWoo Kahng

Rutgers University

An Individualized Program to Teach College Students with ASD to Interview for Meaningful Employment (CAUT22ACP016)

Cecilia Feeley

PhD | Rutgers University

Inclusion of Students with ASD in New Jersey Driver's Education Training Programs in Educational Settings (CAUT22ACP016)

Jack DeLucia

Rutgers University

Neuropilin 2 Regulates Distinct Cellular Processes in Different Basal Ganglia Neuron Populations Necessary for Complex Behaviors In Mice (CAUT22AFP008)

Ranjie Xu

PhD | Rutgers University

Modeling Fragile X syndrome (FXS) inhibitory interneuron development using Human-induced Pluripotent stem cell (hiPSC)-based brain organoid and chimeric mouse models (CAUT22AFP014)

2020 Grantees

Henk-Jan Boele

MD PhD | Princeton University

Crystal Episkull: Live imaging of dendritic structural dynamics in autism developmental trajectories (CAUT20AFP006)

Starting in the first year of life, brains of persons eventually diagnosed with autism start to diverge in structure from neurotypical brains. This research proposal focuses on the number of connections (synapses) between brain cells in the largest part of the brain, the neocortex. An excess of neocortical synapses appears in many forms of autism, and may represent a convergent shared target of multiple mechanisms. Yet the causes of this excess are unknown. Using mouse models, we will test the idea that environmental and genetic high-risk causes of autism have similar effects on neocortical synapse number. The causes to be studied are rare but are highly likely to lead to autism symptoms in both mice and humans. Early-life cerebellar damage increases the risk of autism in children by almost 40-fold, comparable to the association between lung cancer and smoking. Specific gene mutations including Tsc1 and Mepc2Tg1 lead to profound social and cognitive deficits in both mice and humans. We will study changes in neocortical synapses using a new technique that makes the skull super- transparent. This will enable us to study how synapses grow during development and, moreover, will enable us to study how this growth is altered as a result of genetic mutation or cerebellar damage. Better knowledge of how the genetic mutations and early-life cerebellar damage can cause widespread structural changes in the brain may identify targets for intervention and aid in the development of future therapies.

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Silvia Ortiz-Mantilla

MD | Rutgers University

Will interactive acoustic experience optimize rapid auditory processing and prelinguistic acoustic mapping critical to later language in infants at familial risk for autism? (CAUT20APL001)

Significant increases in Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) have been reported in the US with an even larger increase in diagnoses seen within New Jersey. Due to its high heritability, about 20% of younger siblings of children diagnosed with ASD are at risk for the disorder and will also develop ASD. Language deficits frequently accompany ASD, with many children showing language delays as early as 12 months of age. Further, about one-third of the siblings not diagnosed with ASD, will also have language delays. The long-term objective of this research is to support early language development in children at familial risk for ASD in order to improve later language outcomes. One important step to achieve this goal is to understand why language abilities may be affected in ASD. During typical development, the infant brain is actively involved in constructing a precise representation or “map” of the native language. These critical acoustic maps allow the child to process incoming language sounds quickly and efficiently. To create accurate maps, infants must be able to discriminate fast, successive changes in auditory sounds that occur in fractions of milliseconds. The fact that language issues emerge very early in infants at familial risk for ASD, may suggest these problems are related to poorer processing of fast auditory information and/or inadequate establishment of acoustic maps. The Infancy Studies Laboratory at the Center for Molecular and Behavioral Neuroscience at Rutgers, Newark, has developed a 6-week acoustic training protocol to provide support for prelinguistic mapping enhancing infant auditory processing speed and attention. Starting at 4 months of age infants engage in this interactive, baby-friendly game that encourages them to discriminate between sounds that become increasingly faster and more complex. The training protocol has proved successful in improving acoustic mapping and processing speed in typically developing infants. This intervention offers the promise of ameliorating or perhaps even preventing the disrupted language acquisition seen in ASD.

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Jeremy Lessing

PhD | Rutgers Biomedical and Health Sciences

Implications of maternal-fetal microbiome perturbation in the development of neuroanatomical and molecular defects associated with autism (CAUT20AFP004)

There is no single cause of autism, but a mix of genetic and environmental risk factors. C-section is associated with a 20% increase in the risk of developing autism, but the mechanism is not understood. One plausible mechanism is the gut brain axis, and the effect of an altered microbiome in C-section born infants, leading to altered brain development. To test this hypothesis, this project will use a genetic mouse model of autism, in which C-section born mice will be compared to normally delivered mice in their brain development, immunity, neurotransmitters and microbiome. The project will provide better understanding of the basic biology leading to autism-like symptoms. If the hypothesis is confirmed, the results of this study will set the basis for future prevention and treatment of autism using bacteria or bacterial compounds.

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Michael Lewis

MD | Rutgers Biomedical and Health Sciences

Sensory and Social Gaze Behaviors in Infant Siblings of Children with ASD (CAUT20APL003)

Early identification of Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASDs) can vastly improve clinical outcomes, however, there are few reliable ways to recognize ASD symptoms in infants.  We propose studying how problems integrating the senses of sight and sound along with difficulties in infant-mother communication and gaze behaviors may be used to identify infants with ASDs. 

We will recruit 110 at-risk infant siblings of children with ASDs, about 1 in 5 of whom will themselves be diagnosed with ASDs. These at-risk infants will be recruited from Children’s Specialized Hospital, the largest provider of healthcare for children with ASDs and their families in NJ. 

The at-risk infants will be seen at 2 time points. At 9-12 months, they will be tested using well-established procedures to determine: 1) their capacity to integrate verbal sounds with visual cues such as lip movement (intersensory integration); and 2) their ability to engage in reciprocal socio-emotional communication with their mothers. Infants will then be tested at 2 years of age to see if they fulfill the criteria for ASDs.

Our aims are to:

1. Distinguish at-risk infants diagnosed with ASDs from those that are not based on differences in their capacity for intersensory integration;

2. Distinguish at-risk infants diagnosed with ASDs from those that are not based on differences in infant-mother communication and gaze behaviors;

3. Study the interaction between intersensory integration and infant-mother communication and gaze behaviors in at-risk infants; and

By examining the differences in, and the relationship between, sensory and socio-emotional communication abilities of at-risk infants and their subsequent development, we hope to shed light on emerging characteristics of ASDs in infants under a year of age. 

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Joanne Hunt

MA | Childen's Specialized Hospital

Early Occupational Therapy to Improve Functional Outcomes for Young Children with ASD (CAUT20APL025)

Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD) are among the most common neurodevelopmental disorder with estimated costs of treatment across the lifespan of $3.2 million. A common feature of ASD are sensory symptoms which include showing sensitive responses to some sensory stimuli, ignoring other sensory stimuli and difficulty putting sensory information together in an organized way. These sensory symptoms are now included in the diagnostic criteria for ASD. Parents indicate that sensory symptoms have a negative effect on daily living skills and participation in work, education, and social activities for individuals with ASD and their family. We have shown that treatment for sensory features improves independence in self-care and socialization. Building on this previous work, the current study seeks to extend our evidence-based intervention for sensory symptoms in ASD to a younger age group. Research shows that early intervention for children with ASD results in better long-term outcomes. This study will adapt the existing treatment manual for younger children (ages 3-5 years) and test its outcomes. Forty children with ASD from New Jersey will participate in the study at Children’s Specialized Hospital. This study builds on an existing collaboration between Children’s Specialized Hospital, a leading center for treatment of pediatric neurodevelopmental disorders, and Thomas Jefferson University, a leader in autism research.

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Elizabeth Torres

PhD | Rutgers University

Social skills and emotional rhythms in educational and vocational training to help develop autonomous and independent living (CAUT20APL004)

We combine the Socially Interactive Learning Avatar Software, SiLAS the computer technology successfully used across schools of NJ, with new fit-bit like technology that provides real-time measures of biophysical activities, while engaging the children in natural social situations that they themselves design. Through playful settings the children interact socially while using as proxy avatars that they themselves build and watch interact. SiLAS teaches the child about social appropriateness. Importantly, since the children themselves build their social script, and SiLAS endows the avatar with their own voice, eyes and bodily motion patterns as the interaction unfolds, the ensuing learning process is dynamic and fluid. SiLAS helps develop a sense of body ownership and leads to the self-discovery of social appropriateness by having the children assess and discuss the social consequences of their actions with their teacher, as a social group. This form of awareness built through access to their own facial gestures, voices, eye and bodily motions, goes beyond direct prompting. It speaks of intrinsically generated rewards that emerge from emotional awareness and social binding, generalizing to multiple contexts.  

SiLAS integrated with computational tools developed by neuroscientists will provide real time biofeedback on levels of stress / satisfaction, as the children enact their scripts and acquire ownership and agency of their social interactions and their consequences. Further, the program will be deployed in the vocational training classes, to help adolescents excel at job interviews and job retention, during their transition into adulthood. At the completion of the project, the curricular activities including SiLAS as part of their training at the schools, will include new scripts made by the children/adolescents and teachers, new biometrics of social interactions for real-time biofeedback, and a wealth of biophysical data for use in neuroscience, and special ed. 

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Patrice Tremoulet

PhD | Rowan University

Improving Service for Adults with Autism through a Digital Assistant for Direct Support Providers (CAUT20APL016)

Many adults with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) need help from direct support professionals (DSPs) to meet physical and behavioral health needs, and to develop and practice skills for daily living. New Jersey (NJ), along with many other states, is facing a DSP crisis: the demand for DSPs far exceeds current supply and turnover rate is very high. Overworked DSP’s may struggle to find time to document important data about their clients. This leaves adults with ASD vulnerable to physical and/or emotional harm. The NJ Council on Developmental Disabilities recently laid out a multi-pronged approach to build capacity in the DSP workforce that includes evaluating and implementing technology.


We will design, build and pilot test a technology prototype, called a Digital Assistant for DSPs, that facilitates the collection and presentation of behavioral and daily care data needed to optimize support for adults with ASD. This technology will advance clinical care by enabling DSPs to be more efficient, effective, and satisfied with their work. Moreover, by helping DSPs spend less time on documentation tasks, this technology will enable them to provide better care to adults with ASD, thus improving quality of life and advancing public health. Using the IDEAS methodology, that has proven effective in the military medical domain, and partnering with committed community organizations, we will obtain input from diverse stakeholders to derive the data needs of those who support adults with ASD. We will design and implement a flexible and scalable system that supports the collection and sharing of these data by leveraging mobile devices, cloud computing, smart speakers, real-time speech-to-text services, and environmental/wearable sensors. We will evaluate the effectiveness of our solution and document the process used to develop it. We anticipate that our technology and our process will contribute towards developing future systems to support DSP who work with other populations.

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Vlladen-Roko Raisin

MD PhD | Rutgers Biomedical and Health Sciences

Deciphering translational dysregulation in human neurons derived from individuals with autism (CAUT20BSP015)

Barbie Zimmerman-Bier

MD | Rutgers Biomedical and Health Sciences

A Pilot Study of Transcranial Direct Current Stimulation for The Treatment of Children with ASD (CAUT20APL007)

Younger siblings of children with ASD are known to be at higher risk for developing language delays. The Infancy Studies Lab at Rutgers University-Newark has created an engaging interactive acoustic experience with the aim of helping baby siblings of children with ASD develop better pre-language skills known to be important for optimal and efficient language acquisition. Watch this short video to learn more about how to participate in this exciting, innovative research study.