First autism research center in Middle East established at Hebrew U

First autism research center in Middle East established at Hebrew U

Researchers working to find solutions to a condition that has taken on epidemic proportions have a new resource to draw on

The original Hebrew University buildings (photo credit: Shmuel Bar-Am)
The original Hebrew University buildings (photo credit: Shmuel Bar-Am)

Autism, according to scientists, has in recent years grown by epidemic proportions, rising some 600% in the US alone since 1978. Today, one out of 68 children – and one out of 42 boys – are diagnosed with autistic spectrum disorder (ASD), a range of conditions from mild to debilitating that all focus on symptoms associated with autism.

Part of that increase, experts believe, can be explained by better diagnosis techniques – but many believe there is something more going on. What, exactly, is not clear, but a new center established by Hebrew University and the Hadassah Medical Center hopes to find out.

This week, the two institutions announced the establishment of the first interdisciplinary university-based autism center in the Middle East. The Autism Center is a collaborative and interdisciplinary effort bridging several faculties within both institutions, anchored in the Hebrew University’s Faculty of Medicine.

As part of its efforts, the Autism Center will bring together cutting-edge research, clinical services, state of the art training, and education for professionals and parents in the community. A relationship with the community – both general, and that of the parents of autistic children – will be a primary component of the Center’s program, which, organizers hope, will lead to better clinical practice, public programming and policies in support of those who deal with ASD.

Autism affects about 1% of the population – and treating autism has become an important component of public health policy in countries around the world, including Israel. The Israel Ministries of Education, Health, and Welfare recognizes ASD as a top priority and provide diagnostic services, intervention programs, and support for families. Despite this, many families do not get the support they need – both in treatment and counseling – that their autistic child needs. The Autism Center hopes to fill these gaps within the context of the first interdisciplinary, university-based autism center in Israel.

Hebrew University has become an important center for neuroscience and neurological research – areas that are at the heart of autism research – with the addition of the Edmond and Lily Safra Center for Brain Sciences (ELSC) to the campus five years ago. Scientists at the Center have been able to develop dozens of new technologies and techniques that scientists hope will eventually solve the quality of life issues that deterioration of the brain entails.

Among those breakthroughs, for example, was the discovery of a Neuronal Positioning System” (NPS) that maps the circuitry of the brain, similar to how a Global Positioning System (GPS) receiver triangulates one’s location on the planet. Neuronal circuits are comprised of nervous system cells called neurons that work together to bring messages to other neurons and band together to accomplish specific tasks. The neurons, according to researchers, “triangulate” their location and destination in order to coordinate with other neurons.

Commenting on the establishment of the new Autism Center, Prof. David Lichtstein, Dean of the Faculty of Medicine at the Hebrew University, said “Our goal in establishing the Center is to lead Israel and the Middle East in research, training, clinical services and community engagement for the benefit of individuals with autism spectrum disorder and their families. By bringing together the relevant disciplines at the Hebrew University, including medicine, social work and education, and combining them with the clinical excellence of the Hadassah Medical Center, the Autism Center will be positioned to achieve important breakthroughs in the research, diagnosis and treatment of autism.”

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