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Dr. Nancy Minshew: Getting down to the genetic roots of autism

Tuesday, December 31, 2002

By Virginia Linn, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

To find a cure for autism, scientists must understand more about the brain and genetic links.

That's the focus of the Autism Research Project at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine, which director Dr. Nancy Minshew calls "the best-kept secret in Pennsylvania."

Dr. Nancy Minshew's commitment to helping people with autism includes consulting with politicians and walking in fund-raisers.

In a field dominated by psychologists, nowhere else in the world but Pittsburgh is so much research being done in the neural science of autism -- the key area in unlocking the mysteries of this perplexing neurological disorder that now is diagnosed in 1 of every 150 children.

"This group can make some very fundamental contributions that others can't," said Minshew, 52, of Oakland, who has been involved in the research for 15 years.

"Autism is the result of an abnormal brain and abnormal development of the brain. There is a significant genetic contribution to this, and there may be multiple causes that trigger that," she said. "If you want to find a cure, it's plain old genetics. You have to find the genes and develop ways of controlling the genes."

Pitt's autism project is one of 10 collaborative programs of excellence in autism funded by the National Institute of Child Health and Development, and involves scientists working at Pitt, Carnegie Mellon University and the University of Illinois at Chicago.

Strides in the past seven years have been remarkable, she said, as scientists analyze how the autistic brain categorizes objects or why it sometimes fails to recognize faces. They're looking at brain circuitry, as well as studying language and problem-solving abilities.

As reported cases of autism continue to rise, the hottest public debates center on the causes, with some pointing to toxic substances or vaccines. But Minshew says respected studies have discredited those beliefs, and she says it's time to move on.

"The NIH spends so little on [autism] research. We can't have it spent foolishly. We need to figure out the science."

To build awareness, Minshew is active in social and political issues. She participates in charity walks and consults with U.S. Rep. Mike Doyle, D-Swissvale, on his bipartisan caucus on autism. She also works closely with state Rep. Dennis O'Brien, D-Philadelphia, in a similar effort.

"It's really broadened out the research and translated it to current practices. We want to give these families the best we can offer."

And that's her bottom line.

"My day job is science. My mission has always been to improve lives."

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