University of Sydney researcher Dr Michael Bowen has won a $634,841 project grant from the National Health Research Medical Council (NHMRC) to develop new approaches for treating autism and improve the health and healthcare of children and their families living with autism.
Dr Bowen’s project is one of five autism-focused medical research grants announced today by the Federal Health Minister the Hon Greg Hunt MP, which will share in almost $4 million of funding from NHMRC to advance research into the developmental condition.
Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) involves abnormal brain maturation, cognition and behaviour, and according to the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, approximately 1 in 150 people in Australia have some form of ASD.
Autism can range from mild to severe, and include difficulty in social interaction, restricted or repetitive patterns of behaviour and impaired communication skills. Autism affects almost four times as many boys than girls.
Dr Bowen, whose research into oxytocin and social disorders has gained wide public recognition said: “It is an honour to receive this funding and to have this opportunity to work with my colleagues over the coming years to develop new approaches for treating autism.
“We believe that the biological system we will further characterise and develop new drugs to target in this project could help provide a desperately needed breakthrough in the treatment of autism and related disorders,” said Dr Bowen, who is a researcher at the University’s School of Psychology and the Brain and Mind Centre.
Deputy Vice-Chancellor (Research) Professor Duncan Ivison said the funding is important to improve the health and wellbeing of the thousands of Australians who are living with autism, and their families.
“No pharmacological treatments are available for the dysfunctional social behaviour at the core of many disorders, such as autism spectrum disorder and social anxiety disorder,” said Dr Bowen.
“In pilot preclinical studies we have discovered that specific types of inhibitory receptors in the brain, known as extrasynaptic GABA-A receptors, are critically involved in normal social behaviour and can be targeted to improve social behaviour in autism models.
“Interestingly, recent clinical studies of individuals with autism spectrum disorder have identified abnormalities in these receptors associated with the disorder.
“This project will thoroughly define the role of extrasynaptic GABA-A receptors in social behaviour, assess abnormal functioning of extrasynaptic GABA-A receptors in preclinical models of autism, and discover and develop new drugs targeting extrasynaptic GABA-A receptors, potentially providing much needed novel drug candidates for treating social disorders such as autism.”
The Minister for Health, the Hon Greg Hunt MP, said: “These projects bring together the best people in their field to produce high-quality research to ensure that we continue to transform lives."
Dr Michael Bowen has also won a Eureka Prize for Outstanding Early Career Researcher in 2016. He established oxytocin and novel molecules that target the brain’s oxytocin system as prime candidates to fill the void left by the lack of effective treatments for alcohol-use disorders and social disorders.