NIH awards Stanford Medicine teams $10 million for research on sleep and autism

About 80% of children with autism have trouble sleeping, but whether better sleep could lessen other autism symptoms is unknown. A new grant will help Stanford Medicine scientists find out.

- By Erin Digitale

A clinician and child at the Stanford Medicine Children's Health Pediatric Sleep Center demonstrate how children are attached to equipment used in sleep studies. 
Courtesy of Stanford Medicine Children's Health

A group of Stanford Medicine scientists have been awarded approximately $10 million from the National Institutes of Health’s Autism Centers of Excellence program. The funding, announced by the NIH Sept. 6, will support research on the relationship between sleep dysregulation and autism symptoms.

This is the first time Stanford University has been designated an Autism Center of Excellence by this NIH program, which was created in 2007 and is renewed every five years. Stanford University is one of nine institutions to receive the designation in this funding cycle.

Autism is a developmental disorder that affects 1 in 54 children nationwide. It is characterized by deficits in social communication, sensory aberrations, stereotypic behaviors and restricted interests. Poor sleep is a common aspect of the disorder, the researchers explained.

“As many as 80% of children with autism spectrum disorder experience sleep disruptions, including difficulty falling asleep and difficulty sleeping through the night,” said Joachim Hallmayer, MD, principal investigator for the award and a professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Stanford Medicine. “These sleep disturbances are one of the most burdensome symptoms reported by parents of children with autism. In turn, poor sleep is associated with exacerbated severity of core autism symptoms, including repetitive behaviors and social and communication difficulties.”  

The new award will fund three research teams and their projects:

  • Ruth O’Hara, PhD, the Lowell W. and Josephine Q. Berry Professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences, and senior associate dean for research in the School of Medicine, and Makoto Kawai, MD, clinical associate professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences, will lead a study that  characterizes sleep and brain activity in children with autism as compared to typically developing children.

    The researchers will assess sleep fragmentation; sleep architecture, which includes the amount and timing of REM and non-REM sleep; and daytime brain activity, as measured by awake, resting-state electroencephalography, in the two groups. The scientists will examine whether any aspect of sleep dysregulation is associated with autism symptoms or cognitive functioning.

  • Antonio Hardan, MD, professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences as well as the director of the Autism and Developmental Disabilities Clinic at Stanford Medicine Children’s Health, will lead a team studying the effects of three sleep-inducing medications on sleep architecture, circadian rhythm and sleep quality in children and teens with autism. This team will also study whether changes in sleep among autistic individuals taking the medications lead to changes in their autism symptoms.

  • Philippe Mourrain, PhD, associate professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences, will use zebrafish models of autism to examine brainwide activity during sleep, and link this data to eye movement, heart rate and movement of voluntary muscles. The zebrafish will also be used to collect detailed information on how sleep-inducing medications affect the brain in autism.

“Our teams will, for the first time, test to what extent dysregulated sleep, including sleep fragmentation, is central to the development and symptoms of ASD, and whether sleep normalization alleviates these symptoms,” said O’Hara, who will also lead the administrative core of the grant with Hallmayer.

“This research has the potential to offer tremendous relief to children with ASD and their parents or caregivers,” O’Hara said.

Other investigators contributing to this effort include Lawrence Fung, MD, PhD, assistant professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences, who is leading the ACE dissemination core; Booil Jo, PhD, associate professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences, who is leading the ACE analytic core; and Jennifer Phillips, PhD, clinical professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences, who is leading the ACE assessment core. 

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2024 ISSUE 1

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