The Montreal Neurological Institute and Hospital is launching a new specialized centre for autism research, thanks to a major donation from the Azrieli Foundation.

The $16-million donation will allow the Neuro to open up new and innovative avenues of autism research until now funded, said the institute's director, Dr. Guy Rouleau.

"It will jumpstart us into the field of autism, and we'll jump into the newest methods, the newest technologies," he said.

The areas of study will include genetic testing, brain imaging and the development of new therapies and treatments, as well as training autism specialists.

Grouping different types of specialists under one roof is part of the institute's plan to find out more about the uncertain causes and mechanisms of autism, the hospital said. 

One initiative the new research centre plans to undertake is the creation of stem cells based on sample cells taken from the urine of children with autism. These stem cells will then allow researchers to create neurons. 

Guy Rouleau

Dr. Guy Rouleau, the director of the Montreal Neurological Institute and Hospital, said the donation from the Azrieli Foundation will allow the Neuro to open up new and innovative avenues of research, including a stem cell study to find out what's awry with the neurons of children diagnosed with autism. (CBC)

"We will study what's going wrong with these neurons. So the patient's cells, themselves, will be used to study the disease," said Rouleau.

"Once we understand what's going wrong, then we're going to look for ways of correcting the defect, at the cellular level."

The plan is to enlist 1,000 Quebec families that have a child with autism to participate in the study.

Donating to a meaningful cause

The CEO of the Azrieli Foundation, Naomi Azrieli, said her family has been touched by neurological disorders, which is one reason why this cause is so important to the Azrielis.

She praised the Quebec government for coming up with a plan to offer more help to children with autism last March, when the government announced it would invest $29 annually in services and programs for children with autism over the five years.

At the time, Quebec Public Health Minister Lucie Charlebois said the program would prioritize increasing services for preschoolers and nearly halving the current wait times for behavioural therapy.

Naomi Azrieli

Naomi Azrieli says her family has decided to invest in neurodevelopmental disorders in part because they have touched her family directly. The Azrieli Foundation has donated $16 million to the Montreal Neuro for autism research. (CBC)

More than a third of the funding — a total of $11.2 million — was assigned to increase services for patients under five. 

Azrieli said while welcome, those government initiatives are not enough, calling for more investment in research and therapy, especially for older children and adults with autism. 

Without giving away any details, Health Minister Gaétan Barrette said there may be some announcements related to those appeals in the next budget.  

''Diagnosis, for instance, of autism, and home care are two issues that we need to address,'' Barrette said. 

With files from CBC's Ainslie MacLellan