PRESS RELEASE: Peter Bearman Receives NIH Director's Pioneer Award to Study Autism Epidemic

NEW YORK, NY-The National Institutes of Health (NIH) announced today that Columbia University sociologist Peter Bearman will receive the prestigious NIH Director's Pioneer Award, a $2.5 million award that will support Bearman's study of the social determinants of autism.

The Pioneer Award Program is a high-risk research initiative designed to support individual scientists of exceptional creativity who propose pioneering approaches to major challenges in biomedical and behavioral research. This year, this program awarded grants to 12 researchers. NIH Director Elias A. Zerhouni will announce the 2007 recipients of the award at the Pioneer Award Symposium in Washington, D.C., on Wednesday, September 19.

"The autism epidemic is a huge and complex puzzle which impacts hundreds of thousands of children and families," said Bearman. "It is one of the most pressing population health problems of our time. The Pioneer award makes it possible for us to think new thoughts and take big chances in our understanding of the epidemic and hopefully to make major contributions to public health."

Numerous studies have investigated hundreds of factors believed to be associated with both the incidence and increased prevalence of autism. However, a significant dilemma facing researchers is that no single factor correlates very highly with the developmental disorder.

Peter Bearman's research aims to provide new insight into the increased prevalence of autism by comprehensively and simultaneously examining the major factors potentially driving this epidemic. Bearman's study seeks to identify to what extent each of the three competing theories-expanded criteria for diagnosing autism, environmental degradation, and genetic inheritance-is able to account for the rise in autism cases.

In the first stage of his project, Bearman will build new data sets that enable him to understand potential gene-environment interactions, and assess the impact of changes in diagnostic criteria, family dynamics, and other factors in accounting for the autism epidemic. The second phase of his research will focus on understanding the social networks of doctors, hospitals, schools, and interacting parents in neighborhoods and associations whose activities construct the epidemic as we observe it. The third stage of the project will extend the framework developed for analyzing autism to other non-contagious epidemics, ADD, ADHD and bi-polar disorder which, though biologically unrelated to autism, may share some underlying social dynamics.