Vanderbilt Kennedy Center

The Vanderbilt Kennedy Center Awards Four 2009 Hobbs Discovery Grants

Updated on 12/21/2009 3:25:15 PM.

Vanderbilt Kennedy Center Director Elisabeth Dykens, Ph.D., announced that four 2009 Nicholas Hobbs Discovery Grants have been awarded to interdisciplinary teams led by VKC researchers.

Reading disabilities and brain imaging

Reading disability is a serious life-long condition that negatively affects schooling, health status, and social adjustment. Little is known about students who appear typically developing in the primary grades but whose reading disabilities become apparent in the intermediate grades. Investigating the neurological correlates of children with late-emerging reading disabilities is the focus of the project led by Don Compton, Ph.D. (Special Education) in collaboration with John Gore, Ph.D. (Radiology & Radiological Sciences) and Laurie Cutting, Ph.D. (Special Education). The team is currently conducting a study on the behavioral aspects of children with late-emerging reading disabilities. The Discovery Grant will make it possible for the team to conduct structural and functional imaging sessions with a subset of these children. Knowledge gathered in this multidisciplinary study has the potential to provide insight into the earlier identification and treatment of students with late-emerging reading disabilities, with the hope of prevention.

The role of catecholamine neurotransmitters in neurodevelopmental and mental health disorders

Catecholamines and other neurochemicals are believed to play a role in causing psychiatric disorders, and they are therapeutic targets in drug therapies. Most studies have focused on functions of these neurotransmitters in mature development, even though they are expressed early in brain development. Using a mouse model, Maureen Hahn, Ph.D. (Genetic Medicine), with Gregg Stanwood, Ph.D. (Pharmacology), will use genetic and pharmacological techniques to disrupt the norepinephrine transporter (NET) during prenatal development, with the aim of identifying long-lasting neuronal consequences of this insult. Their studies will provide data describing the roles of catecholamine signaling during brain formation and in the causes of neurodevelopmental and mental health disorders.

Combined behavioral and medication treatment for problem behavior

Problem behavior, which includes aggression, self-injury, and/or property destruction, occurs in 15% to 20% of people with autism and intellectual disabilities. The cost of these behaviors is estimated in the billions of dollars, but its greatest impact may be on the long-term life quality of those individuals and their caregivers. Functional behavioral assessment has emerged as the “gold standard” for identifying the causes of problem behavior and directing targeted treatment. One of the most frequently used behavioral approaches is to stop rewarding problem behavior. For example, one response to aggression may be removal of the student from the classroom into a quiet, soothing room to calm down, which may be precisely what a student wants. No longer allowing the student to access the reward can be very effective in reducing problem behavior over time, but it also sometimes results in an initial burst of problem behavior as the student tries to regain the desired reward. In this project, Jeremy Veenstra-VanderWeele, M.D. (Psychiatry), working with Craig Kennedy, Ph.D. (Special Education) and Cassandra Newsom, Psy.D. (Pediatrics), are developing the foundation for a novel intervention using a combined behavioral and medication approach to treat problem behavior in children and adolescents with autism and intellectual disability. The medication being tested has been shown to facilitate behavioral treatment in other clinical populations and animal models. The double-blind trial will compare behavioral treatment plus medication to behavioral treatment plus placebo in children and adolescents with autism and intellectual disability.

Perceptual training for reading disabilities

Developmental reading disabilities are a costly and debilitating problem that affects as many as 1 in every 10 readers. Evidence now indicates a strong neurological basis for reading disabilities. Previous research has focused on how deficits in individual sensory systems (i.e., hearing, vision) contribute to reading problems, but recent evidence suggests that problems in how the brain combines or “integrates” visual and auditory information may also play an important role. Mark Wallace, Ph.D. (Hearing & Speech Sciences), with Calum Avison, Ph.D. (Radiology & Radiological Sciences), will investigate the relationship between multisensory processing and reading abilities, with an emphasis toward the design of better remediation approaches. The work will explore the neural bases of multisensory processing via functional imaging, and will assess how multisensory-based training approaches impact multisensory brain circuits. Knowledge gained will contribute to the detection, diagnosis, and treatment of reading disabilities.

Nicholas Hobbs Discovery Grants, made possible by the generosity of donors, provide essential seed funding that contributes to the discovery of new knowledge to improve the lives of individuals with disabilities and their families. Discovery Grants allow VKC investigators to gather novel data that will strengthen their ideas and help them gain a competitive edge in obtaining larger federal or foundation grants.

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  • Nicholas Hobbs Discovery Grants
    Nicholas Hobbs Discovery Grant Awards are an internal grant mechanism available to Vanderbilt University faculty who are Investigators or Members of the Vanderbilt Kennedy Center.