Lurie Center Welcomes Director of Research: Staci Bilbo, PhD

This summer, the Lurie Center for Autism welcomed its first director of Research, Staci Bilbo, PhD.  An internationally renowned neuroscientist, Dr. Bilbo’s research focuses on the immune and central nervous system during early development, Dr. Bilbo will work alongside Lurie Center Director,  Christopher McDougle, MD, to hasten the pace of discovery and translate this knowledge into better treatments for patients.  Dr. Bilbo will also serve as the Lurie Family Professor in the Field of Autism Research at Harvard Medical School and Research staff in the Department of Pediatrics at MassGeneral Hospital for Children. 

Dr. Bilbo comes to Mass General from Duke University where, as associate professor for Psychology and Neuroscience, she led the Developmental Neuroimmunology Lab for nearly a decade.  Her interests in the study of brain-immune system interactions led her down a novel path at a time when most neuroscience research focused primarily on the neurons, with little consideration for the support cells, including the glial cells that help to maintain neurons. 

Seeing increasing evidence that the microglia – the primary immune cells of the brain -- were important for normal brain development and function, and that if their function was altered during pregnancy then brain development can be disrupted, Dr. Bilbo set off to understand the role that the immune system plays within the brain.

In order to understand autism, the whole body needs to be studied – the immune system, the neural circuits within the brain important for sensation, movement, social behavior, the gut and the bacteria within it, and the role of environmental factors, genetics, and how all of these systems work together. This is the only way that research is going to move forward.

Her research is focused on the early life environment and how a potentially wide range of environmental factors that impact the developing immune system, such as social and environmental toxins, diet, drugs of abuse, and others, might impact brain and behavior throughout the remainder of the lifespan.

There is such a striking increase in the prevalence in autism over the past few decades, and diet is one thing that has also changed, for instance the types of fats and sugars, and food allergies and sensitivities also seem much higher in individuals with autism.  While it is certainly not the only factor, it may be contributing or interacting in meaningful ways, and because diet is an easily modifiable factor, it is worth understanding. 

A second area of research is focused on how exposure to specific combinations of environmental toxins during pregnancy can increase the risk of autism in offspring, and if it does, what persistent changes to the brain’s microglia might underlie brain dysfunction and therefore the types of sensory and behavioral disorders that characterize autism   Because there is constant communication between the immune cells of the brain, with those outside of the brain, like in the blood, the hope is that we can access this information more easily and identify biomarkers (for diagnosis) and also  targets for therapeutics.

At Mass General, Dr. Bilbo and her team, including three post-doctoral fellows that came with her to Boston – are eager to engage with clinicians, patients and families.  Working together, their primary goal is to identify meaningful subtypes of autism.  With this, biomarkers for diagnosis can be developed and the course of treatment becomes much clearer.

Perhaps the biggest thing that brought me here is the Lurie Center itself,” Dr. Bilbo says.  I realized right away that the Lurie Center is unique in its approach to autism and other developmental disorders, for example, the whole body approach.  I think it is unique, and very powerful.  I am excited by the possibilities of how our team can support the autism community. After all, they are the reason we are here.  

The urgency of her work hit close to home when her young nephew received a diagnosis of autism.  She is more focused than ever on the translation of research into better treatments for him, and for the countless other patients and families who are living with autism. 

Dr. Bilbo completed her BA in Psychology and Biology at the University of Texas, her PhD in Neuroendocrinology at Johns Hopkins University in 2003, and her post-doctorate in Neuroimmunology at the University of Colorado in 2007.  Dr. Bilbo has been the principal investigator on five prestiguous   National Institutes of Health grants.  She is the recipient of numerous awards including the Robert Ader New Investigator Award from the Psychoneuroimmunology Research Society, the Frank Beach Young Investigator Award from the Society for Behavioral Neuroendocrinology and the Glenn Hatton Lecturer Award from the UC Riverside Center for Glial-Neuronal Interactions. 

Welcome, Dr. Bilbo and team, to MassGeneral for Children and the Lurie Center for Autism!