Keck School of Medicine of USC researcher Heather Volk, PhD, MPH, has received a $2 million grant from the National Institutes of Health to continue her research on the relationship between prenatal air pollution exposure and the risk of developing autistic traits or having cognitive developmental delays.

Volk, assistant professor of research in the Department of Preventive Medicine, has designed a study that will examine different types of air pollution exposure and compare it to different biomarkers for freeway-based exhaust, regional particulate matter and nitro-polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbon pollutants. The study will evaluate the effect of such exposures on the cognitive development and autistic traits of several hundred children over the first three years of life.

Earlier studies have linked early exposure to air pollution to both cognitive developmental delay and increased autism risk. Those studies, however, only examined the relationship between air pollution and either autism or broader cognitive problems at one point in a child’s life.

By tracking autistic traits and cognitive development of children as they grow, Volk hopes to shed light on whether the risk persists over time and whether there is a critical point when air pollution may effect development of the disorder. Bringing that information to light might help create effective public health interventions.

Volk has been looking into the environmental risk factors that, when combined with a strong genetic risk, might help explain potential pathways involved in autism. Her previous research found that children born to mothers living within 1,000 feet of a freeway appear or exposed to high levels of air pollution were twice as likely to have autism.

“I hope that the study can show how prenatal air exposure can affect autism risk and children’s cognitive ability over time and identify opportunities for broader public health interventions,” said Volk, who is also a principal investigator in the Saban Research Institute at Children’s Hospital Los Angeles.

— By Hope Hamashige