The National Academy of Medicine (NAM) today announced that Daniel H. Geschwind is the recipient of the 2022 Rhoda and Bernard Sarnat International Prize in Mental Health for his groundbreaking scientific work and leadership in the area of autism genetics. The award, which recognizes Geschwind’s achievements with a medal and $20,000, will be presented at the NAM’s annual meeting on Oct. 16. Geschwind is Gordon and Virginia McDonald Distinguished Professor in Neurology, Psychiatry, and Human Genetics, director of the Center for Autism Research, and senior associate dean and associate vice chancellor for precision health at the University of California, Los Angeles.
Geschwind established the modern era of research in autism genetics by developing and leading the Autism Genetic Resource Exchange (AGRE), which he helped create with the Cure Autism Now Foundation in 1997. AGRE was the first major community resource for genetic research on autism spectrum disorder (ASD). By making biomaterials and phenotype data easily accessible, AGRE opened up the field to many more researchers and led to discoveries including the role of rare mutations and inherited variation. The development of a resource designed to be shared broadly and made available to researchers worldwide created a new paradigm for research in psychiatric genetics.
Geschwind’s own work in autism genetics and functional genomics has also been highly influential. His work has focused on translating genetic findings to biological understanding. He developed the notion of ASD as a developmental disconnection syndrome and early on recognized its extreme heterogeneity, framing the disorder as “the autisms.” He pioneered the study of language and social endophenotypes in genetic studies and demonstrated how transcriptomic and epigenetic profiling could be used to define the molecular pathology in ASD and other neuropsychiatric disorders. Over the last decade, Geschwind has led efforts to increase diversity and inclusion of underrepresented groups in autism research, leading the only study of genetics in African Americans, which is in its seventh year.
“Dr. Geschwind’s pioneering work has shown how research can help us meet the challenge of neurologic and psychiatric disorders by identifying how they may be genetically driven, and his creation of AGRE demonstrated the power of community resources to expand these important research efforts,” said National Academy of Medicine President Victor J. Dzau. “His transformational work — including his efforts to make research on ASD more inclusive — makes him highly deserving of this recognition.”
Geschwind was elected to the NAM in 2011. In addition to service on several scientific advisory boards, such as the Allen Institute and the National Institute of Mental Health, he currently serves on the editorial boards of the journals Cell, Neuron, and Science.
Since 1992, the Sarnat Prize has been presented to individuals, groups, or organizations that have demonstrated outstanding achievement in improving mental health. The prize recognizes — without regard for professional discipline or nationality — achievements in basic science, clinical application, and public policy that lead to progress in the understanding, etiology, prevention, treatment, or cure of mental disorders, or to the promotion of mental health. As defined by the nominating criteria, the field of mental health encompasses neuroscience, psychology, social work, nursing, psychiatry, and advocacy.
The award is supported by an endowment created by Rhoda and Bernard Sarnat of Los Angeles. Rhoda Sarnat was a licensed clinical social worker, and Bernard Sarnat was a plastic and reconstructive surgeon and researcher. The Sarnats’ concern about the destructive effects of mental illness inspired them to establish the award. This year’s selection committee was chaired by Peter R. MacLeish, professor, department of neurobiology, Morehouse School of Medicine.