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The U of M has helped launch the nation's largest autism research study

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In order to speed up autism research, better understand the disorder, and help improve lives, the University of Minnesota has helped launched the nation's largest autism research study, according to a news release.

Researchers plan to gather and analyze DNA from over 50,000 autistic individuals and their families, as well as gather feedback to better develop research goals that are meaningful for the autistic community.

The program is called SPARK – which stands for Simons Foundation Powering Autism Research for Knowledge.

Suma Jacob is an an associate professor in the Department of Psychiatry and the Department of Pediatrics at the U of M and leader of the study.

“While autism is common in the United States, many of the details are still unclear. There’s a lot we don’t know,” said Jacob in the news release. “The SPARK initiative, which is the biggest study of its kind, will help us better understand causes and inform how we go about improving the lives of people who are living with autism.”

More than 20 medical centers and autism research centers across the country are participating in SPARK – from California to New York. You can take a look at the list here. The University of Minnesota will serve as a regional hub for the project.

What the study will look at

With such a large-scale study, researchers will be able to gather DNA from a diverse autism community and selectively analyze it based on sex, age, ethnicity, races, geographic locations and socioeconomic situations, the news release says.

For example, there is a higher rate of autism in Minneapolis than the rest of the country, especially among the Somali community, according to the New York Times.

A study completed in 2013 by the University of Minnesota, the CDC and Autism Speaks, found that about 1 out of every 32 Somali children, and 1 out of every 36 white children in Minneapolis were on the autism spectrum – compared to the national average of 1 child in every 88.

Other demographics had much lower rates of autism – the rate for black American-born children in Minneapolis was 1 in 62, and Hispanic children the rate was 1 in 80.

According to the news release, autism is known to have a strong genetic component. Scientists have identified 50 genes that play a role in the disorder, but estimate that a total of 300 or more could be a factor.

To gather as much data as possible, SPARK has made it convenient for participants to provide DNA. After registering online, saliva kits are directly shipped to families. Once they have returned the saliva samples and provided family medical history, SPARK will send participants a $50 gift card.

If your family is eligible for this study, you can click here to register.

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