Autism Fact Sheet

CIRM funds many projects seeking to better understand autism and to translate those discoveries into new therapies.


Autism is not one specific condition but a range of developmental disorders called Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD) that can lead to difficulties with verbal and non-verbal communication, impaired social skills and other behavioral problems.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention 1 in 68 children has ASD, with boys four times more likely than girls to be affected. The precise cause of ASD is not known, however, there seems to be a strong genetic component to it.

While behavioral therapy has been shown to help those with ASD there is no cure. Some medications have shown effectiveness in easing symptoms but none treat the underlying cause of the problem.

CIRM funds several research projects investigating how the brain normally matures during development by studying stem cells as they differentiate or change into different types of nerves. This work could lead to a better understanding of how diseases such as autism form, and to future therapies.

Several CIRM-funded research projects are also using stem cells derived from people with ASD to learn more about how the symptoms of ASD arise and also to screen for drugs. These types of projects start with cells taken from people with ASD. Even if those cells come from the skin they have the same genes as cells in the brain that show symptoms in the disease. These cells can then be reprogrammed into an embryonic-like state called an induced pluripotent stem cell (iPSC), and matured into brain cells. Those resulting brain cells are genetically identical to brain cells in the person who donated the tissue.

CIRM-funded scientists have shown that these autism-like cells behave very differently in a lab dish than normal cells. Studying those cells can help scientists learn what goes wrong in the disease and guide them toward new therapies. What’s more, the scientists can expose those cells to drugs and see which ones alleviate symptoms in the lab dish.

CIRM Grants Targeting Autism

Researcher name Institution Grant Title Grant Type Award Amount
Marius Wernig Stanford University Cellular tools to study brain diseases affecting synaptic transmission Tools and Technologies II $1,664,382
Yi Sun University of California, Los Angeles Studying neurotransmission of normal and diseased human ES cell-derived neurons in vivo Basic Biology III $1,382,400
Anirvan Ghosh University of California, San Diego Investigation of synaptic defects in autism using patient-derived induced pluripotent stem cells Basic Biology III $843,597
Joachim Hallmayer Stanford University Induced pluripotent stem cells from children with autism spectrum disorders Tissue Collection for Disease Modeling $530,265
Alysson Muotri University of California, San Diego A drug-screening platform for autism spectrum disorders using human astrocytes Early Translational IV $1,656,456
David Segal University of California, Davis MSC delivery of an artificial transcription factor to the brain as a treatment for Angelman Syndrome Quest - Discovery Stage Research Projects $1,055,319
Stuart Lipton Scripps Research Institute Drug Development for Autism Spectrum Disorder Using Human Patient iPSCs Quest - Discovery Stage Research Projects $1,827,576
David Segal University of California, Davis AAV9-Cas13 gene therapy for Angelman syndrome Quest - Discovery Stage Research Projects $1,364,903
Joseph Gleeson University of California, San Diego Novel antisense therapy to treat genetic forms of neurodevelopmental disease. Quest - Discovery Stage Research Projects $1,180,654
Alysson Muotri University of California, San Diego A treatment for Rett syndrome using glial-restricted neural progenitor cells Quest - Discovery Stage Research Projects $1,402,240
Gerald Lipshutz University of California, Los Angeles Gene Therapy for SLC6A8 Creatine Transporter Disorder Quest - Discovery Stage Research Projects $2,296,920
Alysson Muotri University of California, San Diego Developing a drug-screening system for Autism Spectrum Disorders using human neurons Early Translational II $1,376,198
Fred Gage Salk Institute for Biological Studies Development of Induced Pluripotent Stem Cells for Modeling Human Disease New Cell Lines $1,737,720
Fen-Biao Gao Gladstone Institutes, J. David MicroRNAs in Human Stem Cell Differentiation and Mental Disorders SEED Grant $748,800
Theo Palmer Stanford University Development of small molecule screens for autism using patient-derived iPS cells Tools and Technologies II $1,797,606

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