Inside the Simons Foundation's Autism Investigations

Autism is a mysterious disorder, in that we don't really know what it is. Sure, we can usually identify how autism manifests in people: They have difficulty with social interactions, repetitive behaviors, and a strong preference for order and routine. But what causes autism in the first place? And if the causes of autism are biological, can they be fixed?

The Simons Foundation, with assets of close to $2 billion, is grappling with these questions. While the foundation supports various types of mathematical and scientific research, one of its programs, the Simons Foundation Autism Research Initiative (SFARI), focuses exclusively on supporting groups that are engaged in exploring the causes and treatment of autism. (See Simons Foundation: Grants for Brain Research and Treatment.)

Among SFARI's investments: $3.3 million to the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory to research the genetic basis of autism. The laboratory has several investigators working on autism-related science. What they are trying to do is understand the biological underpinnings of autism. It's a major undertaking with incredible consequences, and one that pushes the boundaries of what we know about human genetics and the human brain.

SFARI invests in a lot of researchers — dozens of individuals working at institutions every year. Its grants can be in the thousands or millions of dollars, depending on the project, and its website has a helpful chart for interested applicants about the different types of autism research funding available from the foundation. SFARI also provides this informative piece on how it makes funding decisions. Bottom line: SFARI likes rigorous, replicable scientific work that supports the foundation's mission of "improv[ing] the diagnosis and treatment of autism spectrum disorders." (Read SFARI Director Louis Reichardt's IP profile.)

All of which is good news. As misunderstood and as prevalent as autism is, people long for explanations. What is this disorder? How can we fix it? Without solid answers from the scientific community, there is plenty of room for easy-to-digest misinformation, with dangerous consequences. Here's wishing SFARI much success as it attempts to demystify one of the great brain health puzzles of our time.