Vanderbilt Kennedy Center

About the Vanderbilt Kennedy Center

The Marino Autism Research Institute (MARI)

What is MARI?

The Marino Autism Research Institute (MARI) is a joint partnership with the Vanderbilt Kennedy Center’s Treatment and Research Institute for Autism Spectrum Disorders (TRIAD) and the University of Miami Center for Autism and Related Disabilities (CARD).  MARI was established by The Dan Marino Foundation in January 2006 with a generous pledge of $1.2 million over 3 years.
MARI is the first philanthropically funded ‘virtual institute’ designed to sponsor cross-university collaborative research and community outreach on autism.  Mary Partin, CEO of the Dan Marino Foundation, says: “Dan and Claire Marino and the Foundation’s Board of Directors believe that this collaboration between two exceptional centers at national universities will provide a powerful means to address key questions about the nature of autism and to accelerate the discovery of new strategies for treating and preventing autism.”
Visit the University of Miami Center for Autism and Related Disabilities (CARD)
Visit the Dan Marino Foundation

Who are MARI Investigators?

MARI has brought together distinguished researchers in psychology, neuroscience, medicine, and special education from both universities who conduct cutting edge research to answer key questions regarding the causes of autism, the earliest behavioral and biological markers of autism, and the development of creative, evidence-based treatments designed to improve the lives of children with autism and their families. 
The Vanderbilt Kennedy Center effort is led by Wendy Stone, Ph.D., professor of pediatrics and psychology and director of TRIAD. The University of Miami effort is led by Michael Alessandri, Ph.D., clinical professor of psychology and director of CARD.
The distinguished Vanderbilt Kennedy Center researchers who are currently funded as MARI Investigators include:

What are MARI Investigators Studying?

MARI Investigators have accessed pilot grants to establish innovative and collaborative efforts in the following areas:

Insomnia in Children with ASD (Malow):

Sleep disturbances are common in children with ASD.  Lack of sleep can lead to daytime health and behavioral functioning that affect both the individual and family as a whole.  Difficulty initiating sleep is one of the most common concerns reported by families.  Biological causes for sleep-onset insomnia in ASD include the presence of a circadian disorder, sleep-onset delay, or obsessional behaviors and rituals interfering with sleep.  Better understanding of the causes of sleep disturbances in ASD will help us to develop therapies to improve sleep.  This work has the potential to positively impact on daytime behaviors in ASD in addition to promoting sleep and reducing stress on the family. This study will specifically evaluate the relation of insomnia and circadian function, and the role of melatonin and genetics in severity of sleep-onset insomnia.

Improving Joint Attention in Children with ASD (Stone, in collaboration with Mundy):

Responding to joint attention (RJA) skills have been associated with language learning and with responsiveness to early intervention in children with ASD. The purposes of this study are to:  (1) evaluate the effectiveness of a brief intervention for improving the ability of 2- and 3-year old children with ASD to respond to joint attention; and (2) develop a coordinated and collaborative cross-site project with MARI-Miami.

Toward a Real-time Psychophysiological Analysis of Affective States (Sarkar):

One of our innovative research programs is developing robotic and computer technology that can aid individuals with disabilities.  This study is attempting to develop a device capable of diagnosing an individual’s affective (feeling) state in real-time, using bodily responses.  This study measures bodily responses (such as heart rate and temperature, and muscle contractions) during different tasks to identify a person’s emotional responses to stimuli. Studies with adults have shown that we can use people’s physiological responses to improve computer-based tutors or interventions.  We hope to design robotic assistance technology to be used therapeutically for individuals with ASD.

Visual Processing of Facial Features in Infant Siblings of Children with Autism (Key):

The theory that there is an autism-specific impairment in "social orienting" has been offered to serve as an explanation of the early social and communicative deficits, and related developmental delays, in children with ASD.  According to the social orienting model, infants with autism demonstrate a core disruption in the natural inclination to instinctively orient to social stimuli.  This early disturbance leads to further delay in neurobehavioral development and a cascade of behavioral conditions.  The purpose of this project is to examine the early development of social looking behaviors in younger siblings of children with ASD and to investigate whether the pattern of decreased attention to the eye region typically reported in children with autism is present in infant siblings of children with autism, who are at elevated risk for a diagnosis of autism.

Microarray-based assessment of gene copy number in DNA extracted from the superior temporal gyrus of autistic and control brains (Levitt)

Instability of the genome, particularly related to copy number variation (CNV), has been a recent focus of genetics studies of autism.  The findings from examining the DNA from the blood cells of children with autism and typically developing children thus far have suggested that duplications and deletions of genes may be another way in which genes are influencing risk for developing ASD.  This study uses gene chip technology from Affymetrix to examine CNV frequencies in the DNA harvested from postmortem brain tissue identified in the Autism Tissue Program collection.

Understanding Dietary Supplements for Treatment of ASD (McLaughlin)

The purpose of this study is to determine how oxidative stress may contribute to ASD.  Oxidative stress occurs normally as we use oxygen, but it can be increased by genetic and environmental factors and cause damage to the cells.  The effects of oxidative stress may be altered by dietary vitamins and nutritional supplements.  This study will examine how the cells of children with and without ASD respond to different environmental conditions.  Although these experiments are very preliminary, we hope that in the long run they will help us identify biological markers that will lead to improved therapeutic techniques for autism.

Assessments of Visual, Auditory and Multisensory Processing in Children with Autism (Wallace):

This research seeks to further our understanding of the differences in basic sensory and multisensory processes between children with ASD and those who are typically developing. While countless reports describe unusual reactions to sensory input and difficulties with sensory integration in individuals with autism, we are still at a loss for measurable evidence regarding the nature of these sensory complications that are likely to play an important role in the problematic behavioral changes that characterize ASD. Our studies are based on the hypothesis that both sensory and multisensory processes are impacted in ASD, and that these changes manifest largely in the temporal (i.e., timing) aspects of sensory processing and integration.