A Look at the University of Iowa’s New Disability Research Center


Every day in Iowa City, scientists analyze DNA samples to infer which of more than 20,000 human genes are most associated with autism.

SPARK for Autism researchers, including Jacob Michaelson of the University of Iowa, are trying to determine which genes are important in neural development and how they lead to behaviors associated with autism. Asking these “basic science” questions, he says, could help meet the needs of people with autism through pathways like medicine, social programs, employment and education.

SPARK is one example of more than 70 research efforts associated with the university’s new Hawkeye Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities Research Center.

The “Hawk-IDDRC”, for short, has university-wide components. They include the research-focused Iowa Neuroscience Institute and the patient-focused Center for Disabilities and Development.

“It’s because we’re trying to move from diagnosing a 2-year-old child, (who) has behavioral issues at home, to understanding how the brain works,” said Ted Abel, founder and director of the INI.

INI and CDD have been collaborating for years. But creating a formal research center in the eyes of the National Institutes of Health takes time.

In Abel’s words, “you don’t build a 634-page app in a day.”

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Submitting this massive stack of documents ultimately resulted in the Hawk-IDDRC receiving its first iteration of a five-year, $6.2 million grant from the NIH last summer. The state’s board of trustees gave its official stamp of approval for a university research center late last month.

It is now one of 15 CIDDRs nationwide within the Association of Academic Centers on Disability.

Costs for central Iowa will reach about $4.8 million over the next five years, according to a regents document. Funds will come from dollars from the NIH, Carver College of Medicine, Departments of Pediatrics and Psychiatry, and INI, as well as expected support from “foundations and philanthropy.”

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The Ted Abel Lab, introduced in 2018 at the University of Iowa, has been conducting neuroscience research for years.  Now, armed with a federal grant, scientists can use what they learn to better help patients.

‘It’s easy to get distracted’: UI center instead merges research with daily patient care

Lane Strathearn, medical director at the Center for Disabilities and Development, said unifying research with patient care, as is happening in UI, helps scientists study topics that really matter to people. families and people with disabilities.

“It’s easy to get distracted by issues that aren’t really important to the big picture,” he said.

This fusion between patients and research is the very essence of the new university research centre. Its patient-focused strand, CDD, saw more than 4,300 people in fiscal year 2021. Meanwhile, INI focuses on basic neuroscience — essentially, understanding how the brain works.

Doctors know that measuring blood pressure over a person’s lifetime helps reduce health risks. It’s not the same with intellectual disabilities, Abel said. It’s less clear what to look for; there is no “blood pressure cuff for the brain”.

“It becomes especially difficult because you’re trying to do that in developing children, and they’re everywhere, and they’re not talking yet; various things. The challenge is trying to find out what’s through years that is predictive, even going back before birth,” Abel said.

IDRC researchers are trying to better understand the genetic overlaps between different intellectual and developmental disabilities.

For example, the “amyloid precursor protein” linked to Alzheimer’s disease is found on chromosome 21 – the same area affected in Down syndrome. There are also genetic links between autism and schizophrenia. Anxiety is a core component of many other diagnoses, but has long been studied as a separate condition, Abel said.

He said a better understanding of the science behind diagnoses such as cerebral palsy, spina bifida, ADHD and autism – all of which are found in people who come to college for care – can help. improve problems as they arise.

Abel considers his son as an example. Although he is now 22 and studying at UI, Seamus received his first physical therapy at 4 days old while in neonatal intensive care.

There’s no “check” on what would have happened to his development if the family hadn’t started therapy so early, Abel said.

“But you would think it helped him develop. And I know our developmental pediatrician expected his motor development trajectory to be more delayed than it was,” he said. he declares.

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‘How do you support this person?’ One in four Iowa adults have a disability

The Ted Abel Lab, introduced in 2018 at the University of Iowa, has been conducting neuroscience research for years.  Now, armed with a federal grant, scientists can use what they learn to better help patients.

According to 2019 federal data, about one in four adults in Iowa — more than 570,000 people — has some kind of disability.

Michaelson, the SPARK autism researcher, also points out that everyone has genes that are impacted by genetic variation even if they don’t know it. The same biological and genetic processes that lead to autism are responsible for creating human diversity in general.

He stressed that the study was not looking for a “cure” or a world in which autism does not exist.

“But we’re looking for a world that’s more accommodating for people with autism, one that allows them to reach their deepest potential without some of the suffering that comes with certain aspects and risk factors,” Michaelson said.

He is a member of the Autism Society of Iowa.

In the past, people wanting to participate in autism research had to have an academic medical center “in their backyard,” Michaelson said. The need for geographical proximity to one of these specialized centers has reduced the pool of people who can participate.

Now people participate in SPARK by spitting in a tube and putting it in the mail.

But Iowa still has gaps in diagnostic services for people with disabilities, said Brook Lovelace, executive director of the Iowa Developmental Disabilities Council. This is especially true in rural areas.

Research to better understand developmental disabilities will lead people to better support for them, she said.

“You’re not going to ‘treat’ autism. But how do you support that person from zero to the end of their life?” said Lovelace.

“So I think the sooner you start this the better.”

Cleo Krejci covers education for the Iowa City Press-Citizen. You can reach her at [email protected]


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