Home Research funding David Cochran receives Eagles Foundation grant to study biomarker-based drug therapy for autism

David Cochran receives Eagles Foundation grant to study biomarker-based drug therapy for autism


A research team led by David M. Cochran, MD, PhD, received $ 400,000 from Eagles Autism Foundation to study a pharmacological treatment based on biomarkers for autism spectrum disorders. The study is one of 18 projects that will receive $ 3.1 million in funding for cutting-edge autism research and programming from the private philanthropic organization.

David M. Cochran, MD, PhD

The two-year project “really takes the development of treatments for autism to the next level in terms of using brain markers to be able to demonstrate that we’re making changes that could have longer-term effects that actually have a impact.” impact on the social core characteristics of autism, ”said Dr. Cochran, the Barrett Family Chair in Neurodevelopmental Disorders, assistant professor of psychiatry and medical director of the Center for Autism and Neurodevelopmental Disorders (CANDO) within the Eunice Kennedy Shriver Center and the Department of Psychiatry at UMass Medical School.

Autism, which affects one in 54 children, is in part a social communication disorder, Cochran explained. Previous research has shown that social cognitive deficits are linked to an imbalance in the brain between glutamate, which is an excitatory neurotransmitter, and GABA, which is an inhibitory neurotransmitter. These neurotransmitters can be measured by a technique called magnetic resonance spectroscopy (MRS).

“What we have shown and confirmed in other studies is that there is a lower amount of GABA in the brain in certain areas in children with autism, compared to typically developing children,” Cochran said. . “And we have shown that the levels are linked to social impairment.”

The study funded by the Eagles Foundation aims to: determine whether treatment with the drug gabapentin, used for seizure disorders and postherpetic neuralgia, sustainably increases GABA levels in the right anterior insula (RAI), an area of the brain involved in social cognition; to determine whether the response of RAI GABA levels to a single dose of gabapentin predicts a sustained response after treatment; and to determine whether increasing GABA levels with gabapentin treatment results in clinically measurable improvements in social cognition.

The eight-week open-label clinical trial of gabapentin in 40 adolescents, aged 13 to 17, with autism spectrum disorders, will measure GABA levels using MRS before and after treatment.

Most of the work is done locally within the UMass Medical School of the Eunice Kennedy Shriver Center, in collaboration with Jean A. Frazier, MD, the Robert M. and Shirley S. Siff Chair in Autism, professor of psychiatry and pediatrics and executive director of the Shriver Center.

The UMass Medical School team is working with Richard C. Schmidt, PhD, distinguished liberal arts professor and chair of the Department of Psychology at the College of the Holy Cross, to assess whether participants’ social behavioral interactions change over the course of study.

“One of the real challenges with autism, in terms of drug treatment, is that there is currently no medical treatment for the major social deficits of autism. A high percentage of autistic children are taking medication, but these relate to behavioral or psychiatric symptoms, such as hyperactivity, irritability or anxiety, ”Cochran said.

If gabapentin is found to be effective in maintaining GABA levels and treating major social deficits, Cochran said, more treatment studies would be needed to determine the long-term clinical impact. He said that a future avenue of research would be to determine whether altering brain biomarkers earlier in development, when neural pathways are still forming, could alter the trajectory of the disorder.

“This year, we received an incredible number of 47 Letters of Intent, which were then reduced to 28 full proposals that went through a full review process,” said Ryan Hammond, Executive Director of the Eagles Autism Foundation. “Throughout this highly competitive review process, Dr. Cochran’s innovative research stood out, demonstrating the potential to have a real impact on lives and the field at large. His work plays a vital role in expanding our understanding of autism and could lead to better therapies and treatment methods, and we are excited about the possibilities that will emerge from his research.

The Eagles Autism Foundation is dedicated to raising funds for innovative autism research and programs. By providing the necessary resources to doctors and scientists at major institutions, the foundation will be able to help those currently affected by autism as well as future generations. The foundation aims to inspire and engage the community, so that together they can provide much-needed support to have a lasting impact in the field of autism.

Related Articles on UMassMed News:
The access to child psychiatry project for autism spectrum disorders is ready during the pandemic
UMass School of Medicine Joins Autism Learning Health Network