UTHealth, UWI expanding research on autism spectrum disorders in Jamaica

Mohammad Hossein Rahbar, Ph.D.

Mohammad Hossein Rahbar, Ph.D.

HOUSTON – (Nov. 12, 2013) – Researchers at The University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston (UTHealth) and the University of the West Indies (UWI) have been awarded a $2.8 million grant to continue studying the role of certain genes and environmental toxins in autism spectrum disorders (ASDs) in Jamaican children.

This five-year grant is awarded by the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (1R01ES022165-01), part of the National Institutes of Health. Mohammad Hossein Rahbar, Ph.D., is the principal investigator and professor of epidemiology and biostatistics at The University of Texas School of Public Health, part of UTHealth.  

“This project sets the stage for developing long term collaborations with faculty at UWI in Kingston, Jamaica, to expand our capacity for conducting large scale population-based ASD studies in Jamaica,” said Rahbar, director of Clinical and Translational Sciences in the Department of Internal Medicine at the UTHealth Medical School and director of the Biostatistics, Epidemiology, and Research Design (BERD) component of the Center for Clinical and Translational Sciences at UTHealth.

Since 2009, with funding from National Institute of Child and Human Development (NICHD) and Fogarty International Center (FIC), Rahbar and his team have studied the effect of five heavy metals found in Jamaican soil and food and how they interact with genes to affect ASDs. This research will expand to investigate the role of certain genes and polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), organochlorine pesticides (OCs) and aluminum in ASDs. As an island nation, Jamaica has specific sources of exposure to environmental contaminants. PCBs and OC pesticides are suspected to be in the country’s seafood and agricultural products.

In March 2011, UWI received a grant from the Japanese Special Fund titled JA Kids: The Jamaican Birth Cohort Study 2011. Maureen Samms-Vaughan, M.D., Ph.D., serves as the principal investigator of the JA Kids study. This grant allows them to study a birth cohort of 5,500 expectant mothers in Jamaica. The women are enrolled in their third trimester and then children are studied until they are 2 years old.

UTHealth researchers will collaborate with Samms-Vaughan and her research team at UWI by utilizing relevant data collected from this birth cohort to investigate factors associated with certain environmental toxins, particularly in utero exposures.

“We will have an opportunity to write future grants in collaboration with colleagues at the UWI to follow up on these children in order to assess their health outcomes,” said Rahbar.

Initial research focused on the following toxins: mercury, arsenic, lead, cadmium, and manganese. Rahbar and his team found that none of these metals are related to ASD in Jamaican children. However, they did discover a link between older age of biological parents and children being born with ASD.

Autism spectrum disorders are complex, neurodevelopmental and behavioral disorders characterized by impairments in social interaction and communication and repetitive, sometimes obsessive, behaviors. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), a conservative estimate is that one in every 88 children has an ASD.

Co-investigators from The University of Texas School of Public Health are Jan Bressler, Ph.D., assistant professor in the Human Genetics Center, and Eric Boerwinkle, Ph.D., professor and director of the Division of Epidemiology, Human Genetic, and Environmental Sciences. Co-investigator Katherine A. Loveland, Ph.D. is a professor of Psychiatry & Behavioral Sciences at the UTHealth Medical School. UWI is represented by Maureen Samms-Vaughan, M.D., Ph.D. 

Hannah Rhodes
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