Researchers from Yale, Harvard, Boston University, Columbia, Washington University, the University of Washington, The University of Illinois-Chicago, Emory University, McGill University in Montreal and UCLA are also participating in this research project. The initiative plans to create a collection of "simplex" samples, that is, samples from families with one child with autism, so it can "support research across a range of areas with an adequate sample to address different sub-types" of autism spectrum disorder. The University of Michigan statement says:
While there are core deficits that define Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD) there is also a great deal of heterogeneity among children and adults with ASD in terms of behaviors, level of functioning and co-morbid conditions such as mental retardation or obsessive compulsive disorder.
Recent findings in the molecular genetics of autism and in family transmission patterns suggest that there are likely several, if not many, autisms. Researchers say it is important to identify subtypes of autism that are associated with risk factors or etiologies in order to develop appropriate treatments or prevention strategies.
This kind of far-reaching research effort meshes with the approach demanded by the Simons Foundation, whose current call for research proposals insists on scientists sharing information and describes this 11-university project as a key component of its vision "to bring the very best scientists in the world to focus on the molecular genetics, cell biology and cognitive neuroscience of autism and related disorders." A statement on the foundation website adds: "Recent progress in each of these areas of investigation indicate that the time is now right for major advances in our understanding of the risk factors, causes and potential treatments of autism."
Where does the money come from? It turns out that Jim and Marilyn Simons are billionaires whose daughter was diagnosed with autism at age 6. He is a well-known mathematician who became a successful hedge fund manager. An interesting 2005 article from The Wall Street Journal described the Simons' drive to get science going on the autism problem, though his approach in funding research is described more as a venture capitalist than a philanthropist, the paper says. (A copy of the article, "A hedge-fund titan stirs up research into autism," is available here, via the helpful online archive of The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.)
A note of perspective from the Journal article about the importance of the Simons' philanthropy. The article says:
Autism researchers lack a "good solid clue," says Thomas Insel, head of the mental-health institute at the government's National Institutes of Health. The doctor adds: "We have no lesion. We don't know what systems in the brain are involved. So we are at the very early stages. It's like cancer or diabetes research 25 years ago."