Autism research initiative is a coup for state

Atlanta is the home of a new autism “center of excellence,’’ thanks to a federal grant of more than $8.3 million to Emory University.

The funding from the National Institutes of Health will launch a collaborative research initiative involving the Marcus Autism Center at Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta, the Department of Pediatrics at Emory School of Medicine, and the Yerkes Primate Research Center at Emory.

The center will be one of only three autism centers of excellence in the country. The research will focus on developing early detection and treatment for autism, along with looking into causes of the brain disorder.

The Marcus Center saw 5,600 children in 2011, making it the leading autism center in the U.S., officials said. A news conference Thursday at the state Capitol announced the grant and the center of excellence designation.

One of every 88 U.S. children is diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder. In Georgia, the rate is even higher –- one in every 84 children. Ami Klin, director of the Autism Center of Excellence and the Marcus Autism Center, told GHN that the state’s higher rate is due to broader detection and awareness efforts in Georgia.

Gov. Nathan Deal, speaking at the news conference, noted the magnitude of the autism problem and its effects not just on families but on communities. He called the autism initiative “a great opportunity for the state of Georgia.’’

“Georgia has a history of achieving great things through partnerships,’’ Deal said. The grant will make Georgia a national leader in research and treatment of autism, he said.

The center of excellence will bring together more than 25 researchers and physicians, along with Florida State University researchers.

Bernie Marcus, a co-founder of Home Depot who established the autism center that bears his name in 1991, said in a statement that the research ‘‘is going to have an enormous impact on thousands of lives. This research collaboration will transform the way we identify and care for children with autism, allowing us to better serve them and their families.’’

Klin, also a Georgia Research Alliance Eminent Scholar, called the research collaboration “a moment of promise,’’ citing the linguistic, intellectual and behavioral challenges faced by children with autism.

He said markers of risk for autism spectrum disorder can be identified early in infancy. Researchers have uncovered factors that can predict an autism spectrum disorder in the first six months of life.

The younger children are when their autism is detected and treated, the better opportunity they have to reach their full potential.

Doug Hertz, chairman of Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta’s board, said at the news conference that Klin is a ‘‘rock star’’ in autism research.

Klin said, “Autism is a huge challenge, but it represents tremendous opportunities.’’

He said he would like to see early detection of autism — in the first six months of life — be widespread in communities, along with early intervention. With the autism collaboration, Klin said, “there is an equal emphasis on treatment.’’

Mike Cassidy, president and CEO of the Georgia Research Alliance, agreed that the autism collaboration represents a milestone, part of ‘‘a defining moment’’ for scientific research in the state.