Searching for the Genetic Roots of Autism
Under the direction of Eric Morrow, MD, PhD, the Developmental Disorders Genetics Research Program (DDGRP) seeks to identify genes associated with autism and intellectual disability so that these disorders can be diagnosed earlier and more accurately, and treated more effectively. The program includes researchers at Bradley Hospital, Hasbro Children’s Hospital and The Warren Alpert Medical School of Brown University. Direct patient contact and consultation with families takes place at the Bradley Campus Research Unit in East Providence, while Morrow’s genetics and neuroscience research lab is located at Brown University.
Autism spectrum disorders are a group of complex neurodevelopmental disorders that include autistic disorder and Asperger’s disorder. Because these disorders are highly genetic, DDGRP researchers are using genome-wide "forward genetic" strategies to identify genetic mutations. At the same time, molecular and neurodevelopmental studies of identified pathways are underway in experimental systems in human and mouse tissues. The over-arching goal of this work is to translate scientific discoveries into improved medical care for children affected by these disorders.
Among the DDGRP’s current initiatives is a multi-site, patient-oriented Rhode Island genetics study. “The focus is to identify different genetic causes, and learn more about the genetic causes we’ve already identified, through gene discovery and genotype-phenotype correlation,” Morrow says. “We work collaboratively with clinical partners and local families affected by autism, and we keep in long-term, longitudinal contact with those families.”
Using novel tissue culture technologies, which can convert patient’s blood or skin cells into neurons, his researchers are also examining differences in the neurons and synapses of autistic children directly. These studies may provide important tools for screening new medicines and testing their effects on neurons as a step towards new treatments in children. Finally, Morrow is also interested in a naturalistic longitudinal study of treatment options, following children with autism spectrum disorders who do not respond well to existing treatments.
Morrow received his PhD in genetics and neurodevelopment at Harvard University, and his MD degree from the Health Science Training Program at MIT and Harvard Medical School. During this medical training, Morrow developed a strong interest in the scientific challenges posed by childhood neuropsychiatric disorders. He was the MGH Rappaport Neuroscience Scholar and Assistant Professor at Harvard Medical School prior to joining the Brown faculty and the Bradley Hasbro Children’s Research Center.