MUSM researchers receive NIH grant to support individuals with ASD in rural Georgia

Carolann Curry and Sarah Rotschafer in Library
Carolann Curry (left) and Dr. Sarah Rotschafer received a six-figure NIH grant to develop education and resources that will lead to early diagnosis and intervention therapies for autism spectrum disorder in rural Georgia. Photo by John Knight.

MACON/SAVANNAH – Mercer University School of Medicine (MUSM) faculty members Sarah Rotschafer, Ph.D., and Carolann Curry, MLIS, have received a six-figure grant from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to develop education and resources that will lead to early diagnosis and intervention therapies for autism spectrum disorder (ASD) in rural Georgia.

The grant, in the amount of $142,500 per year for up to three years, was awarded by the NIH’s National Library of Medicine (NLM) for the project, titled “Autism Spectrum Disorder in Rural Georgia: Education and Resources.”

Dr. Rotschafer and Curry will create an interactive website, called the Autism Toolkit, to help parents with children on the spectrum, adults with ASD and health care providers learn more about ASD and find resources within their communities.

Additionally, the researchers will develop strategies to increase awareness and resources among rural Georgia health care providers, who often lack capabilities for ASD treatment and testing.

“I’m very excited to work on this project,” said Dr. Rotschafer, who serves as assistant professor of neuroscience on the Savannah campus. “It addresses a real need, and, by working with people effected by ASD in rural Georgia, I think we will be able to create some usable solutions for people looking for guidance.”

ASD affects one in 44 children in the U.S. While it can be diagnosed in children as young as 18 months old, it typically isn’t detected until around the age of 4 1/2, said Dr. Rotschafer, who has completed research as a doctoral student, postdoctoral researcher and faculty member on fragile X syndrome, a condition often associated with ASD.

“A two- to three-year delay might not seem significant, but an incredible amount of brain development happens within that period for young children. As such, the younger children with ASD are identified, the sooner they can participate in early intervention therapies and the better their long-term outcomes will be,” she said. “Research has shown that receiving a lot of early intervention therapy later in life cannot make up for missing therapeutic opportunities when children are young. Therefore, identifying children with ASD early and making sure they get appropriate care is critical to their well-being.”

Curry, associate professor of community medicine on the Macon campus, will draw on her manifold roles as a reference, outreach and assessment librarian as well as a grant support and technical writer for the School of Medicine to support the project.

“This grant funding is provided by the National Library of Medicine for projects that emphasize providing reliable health information to health disparity populations,” said Curry. “The NLM resources that we will incorporate into the Autism Toolkit will ensure that Georgians, including those living in rural areas, have access to useful, usable and easy-to-understand online health information related to autism spectrum disorder.”

Dr. Rotschafer, originally from White Bear Lake, Minnesota, earned her Ph.D. in neuroscience from the University of California, Riverside, where she completed research studying how auditory processing was altered at the cortical level in fragile X model mice. As a postdoctoral researcher at the University of California, Irvine, she studied how auditory processing was altered at the level of the brainstem in fragile X mice. 

She joined Mercer’s faculty in 2018 and has continued fragile X model mouse research by studying the effects of acetylcholine on auditory processing, while also expanding the scope of her work to include increasing ASD awareness in rural areas.

In 2020, she worked with the Georgia Rural Health Innovation Center to create the “Autism Spectrum Disorder Resources in Georgia” webpage, which served as a basis for the NIH grant proposal and helped her to meet and form collaborations with people working on ASD in rural Georgia.

Curry, from Macon, earned her bachelor’s degree in mass communication and English from Flagler College and Master of Library and Information Science from Valdosta State University.

She joined Mercer University School of Medicine’s medical library in 2007 and has held various roles, including outreach, reference, instruction and document delivery. Her research interests include biomedical scholarly communication as well as health and information literacy.

About Mercer University School of Medicine (Macon, Savannah and Columbus)

Mercer University’s School of Medicine was established in 1982 to educate physicians and health professionals to meet the primary care and health care needs of rural and medically underserved areas of Georgia. Today, more than 60 percent of graduates currently practice in the state of Georgia, and of those, more than 80 percent are practicing in rural or medically underserved areas of Georgia. Mercer medical students benefit from a problem-based medical education program that provides early patient care experiences. Such an academic environment fosters the early development of clinical problem-solving and instills in each student an awareness of the place of the basic medical sciences in medical practice. The School opened additional four-year M.D. campuses in Savannah in 2008 and in Columbus in 2021. Following their second year, students participate in core clinical clerkships at the School’s primary teaching hospitals: Atrium Health Navicent The Medical Center and Piedmont Macon Medical Centers in Macon; Memorial University Medical Center in Savannah; and Piedmont Columbus Regional Hospital and St. Francis Hospital in Columbus. The School also offers master’s degrees in preclinical sciences and biomedical sciences and a Ph.D. in rural health sciences in Macon and a master’s degree in family therapy in Macon and Atlanta.