MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) — A first-of-its-kind study is underway right now to better understand autism.

Thousands of participants are needed for SPARK, which stands for Simons Foundation Powering Autism Research for Knowledge.

Until now, autism-based research often only includes a small number of individuals and families. The SPARK study will provide researchers with the genetic information from thousands of families affected by autism from around the country.

The foundation is teaming up with the University of Minnesota’s Autism Research program to help create a national genetic network of participants. The U of M is among nearly two dozen research facilities taking part in the study.

“The unique part of this study is, it’s really hitting nationally and networking across autism centers to get the big numbers we need to make discoveries we need in biology and autism,” said Dr. Suma Jacob, an associate professor at the University of Minnesota.

Kelly Kausel and her 8-year-old son, Noah, are among the nearly 300 families currently registered for the study through the University of Minnesota. University researchers have nearly 900 more families who’ve signed up and are awaiting final confirmation they are part of the study.

Kausel’s family joined last year knowing the information could help Noah and also future family members.

“I want to help, especially generations below our family and my son,” Kausel said.

The commitment to the SPARK study is minimal.

“The exciting thing about this is everything is online,” Jacob said.

Participants sign up online. After entering in their information the study sends a saliva DNA kit to the home.

Participants only need to swab their cheek or give a sample of their saliva and send it back.

“It’s very easy and this study is great for people who are rural, and in the Twin Cities, because you don’t have to drive anywhere,” Kausel said. “A lot of times with the studies, it’s hard to get people in rural counties to participate without driving to the cities.”

Researchers will compile the DNA and use the genetic information to look for patterns or variations in the genes associated with autism.

“Overtime, as genetic analysis is done, families will get information back related to their specific situation or results, but we’ll also be able to know new things as they evolve or new opportunities as they come up,” Jacob said.

He believes the information will not only lead to a better understanding but also further research in the future.

“To think of long-term benefits and new projects over time that could develop, it’s an exciting opportunity,” Jacob said.

If you’d like to join the study or learn more information, click here.

Jacob said researchers are just one year into the three-year study.

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