Vanderbilt Kennedy Center

Research Areas

The major research areas of the VKC IDDRC are organized into four thematic research areas in which researchers interact regularly, sharing theoretical orientations and methodologies, but who vary widely in their academic disciplines.

researcher explains a poster to a colleague


Currently, 91 projects from 76 VKC investigators cover each of these four research areas.  Although there is overlap in some projects, examples of the types of work in each area are as follows:

Basic mechanisms

Scientists study fundamental principles of nervous system development, strategies of cell signaling and neurotransmission, plasticity and structure-function relationships through the use of novel invertebrate and vertebrate model systems.  These efforts focus on understanding factors during fetal development that increase risk for IDDs, and pre- and postnatal gene-by-environment factors that influence nervous system ontogeny and maturation.  The relationships between inherited and acquired neurodevelopmental disorders and long-term dysfunction also are studied.  Translation of basic studies to clinical investigations is done through unique, collaborative genetic and behavioral studies in model systems and human populations.

Cognitive processes and interventions

Scientists examine the development and functioning of circuits and systems that underlie learning and memory, executive functioning and attention, from early postnatal periods of development through adults.  Central to this area are multidisciplinary studies linking projects among various disciplines represented in the VKC, including special education, psychology, neuroimaging, electrophysiology, and genetics.  Leveraging strengths in special education and developmental psychology, IDDRC scientists translate research findings on fundamental cognitive processes to interventions with children, adolescents, and adults with inherited and acquired disorders that result in IDD and learning disorders.

Mental health and interventions

IDDRC investigators define the fundamental features of co-occurring mental health dysfunction in individuals with IDDs and the neurodevelopmental bases of child-, adolescent-, and adult-onset mental illnesses, including ADHD, anxiety, depression, schizophrenia, and dementia.  VKC investigators have major efforts in identifying the molecular and cellular basis for the initial wiring and maturation of brain areas involved in mood and emotion, and the resulting behavioral disorders that occur due to altered development.  Rare and common mutations in candidate genes are identified in autism, OCD, ADHD, and other neurodevelopmental disorders.  The impact of these mutations on protein function is tested in model systems.  Genetic and environmental contributions to psychopathologies are studied in animal models and clinical populations.  VKC investigators also study longitudinal trajectories of mental health dysfunction in syndromic IDDs and in mental illnesses that have a neurodevelopmental basis.  Research also includes prevention in at-risk youth, biobehavioral interventions, and interventions for parents of offspring with IDDs.

Life impact

Scientists examine the functional impact, over time, of inherited and acquired IDDs and health and mental health impact on children, adolescents, and adults, and their families.  Research projects are highly interdisciplinary, integrating methodological strategies to examine behavioral, psychological, educational, and medical health outcomes in individuals with disabilities and the nuclear and extended family members.  Research on best practices to intercede on behalf of families who are most at-risk is performed.

Active grants as related to investigators