2017 VKC Discovery Grants Announced

Text "Discovery Grants" over a photo of a molecular structure

Innovation characterizes the Shirley F. and Stuart W. Speyer Discovery Grant and the two Nicholas Hobbs Discovery Grants awarded for 2017, which were announced by Elisabeth Dykens, Ph.D., Vanderbilt Kennedy Center (VKC) director and Annette Schaffer Eskind Chair.

VKC Discovery grants support multidisciplinary preclinical or clinical pilot studies in preparation for submitting competitive grant applications to federal agencies or private foundations. The program is made possible by the generous gifts of friends of the Vanderbilt Kennedy Center.

Discovery Grants are an annual competitive VKC grant program open to VKC investigators or members. Some funds are donated by families with a specific interest within intellectual and developmental disabilities research. Other VKC Discovery Grants are named in honor of VKC founding director Nicholas Hobbs.

For 2017, grant awards range from $28,500 to $30,000.

“We are enormously grateful to all our donors for their generosity, which makes these innovative pilot grants possible,” Dykens said. “The pilot studies supported by Discovery grants not only allow many of these investigators to later garner large federal grants but lay the foundation that can lead to significant discoveries.

”Dr. Roger Colbran and colleagues recently reported a mutation in the gene for the critical neuronal protein CaMKII, which holds promise for new insights into the molecular mechanisms underlying autism. Roger received Discovery grants in 2008 and 2011 related to CaMKII signaling complexes during development, with subsequent research grants from NIH. This is a wonderful example of how these small grants can contribute to later significant discovery.” (See “Gene mutation discovery” in this issue.)

Assessing effects of medications on challenging behaviors

The number of children with intellectual and developmental disabilities (IDD) who are prescribed psychotropic medications has increased markedly in recent years, and is increasing for younger children as well. While some studies have shown promising effects of medications on reducing challenging behaviors, measures to assess therapeutic effects have relied heavily on reports from caregivers. In this Discovery grant, an interdisciplinary team will pilot a set of direct, behavioral assessments of children with IDD to provide sensitive measures of psychotropic drug effects, and to enhance the understanding of behavioral versus biological mechanisms of drug action.

Blair Lloyd, Ph.D.

Blair Lloyd, Ph.D.

Funded by the Shirley F. and Stuart W. Speyer Discovery Grant, the project is led by Blair Lloyd, Ph.D., BCBA-D, assistant professor of Special Education; with co-investigators Jim Bodfish, Ph.D., professor of Hearing & Speech Sciences, and Kevin Sanders, M.D., associate professor of Psychiatry and director of VUMC Outpatient Child Psychiatry Services.

“Our pilot study will inform how psychotropic medications influence response to behavioral interventions and can impact best practices for integrating psychotropic and behavioral interventions to improve outcomes for youth with intellectual and developmental disabilities and associated emotional and behavioral challenges,” Lloyd said.


Understanding emotion-cognitive mechanisms in stuttering

Research has shown links between emotion and the onset and development of childhood stuttering, which has a significant negative impact on behavioral, social, and emotional development. Emotion reactivity differs in children who do and do not stutter. Severity of stuttering is associated with physiologic regulation, which is moderated by cognitive control, but the mechanisms that underlie the emergence and persistence of stuttering is very limited—which in turn limits therapeutic approaches.

This Hobbs Discovery Grant aims to determine emotion-related cortical and autonomic markers of risk for stuttering, and to examine the impact of emotion on cognitive control, a process used in speech-language planning and production with which emotion interferes.

Robin Michael Jones, Ph.D.

Robin Michael Jones, Ph.D.

The project team has complementary expertise in speech-language pathology and autonomic markers of emotion, and cortical psychophysiology. The project is led by Robin Jones, Ph.D., assistant professor of Hearing & Speech Sciences; with co-investigators Sasha Key, Ph.D., associate research professor of Hearing & Speech Sciences and director of the VKC Psychophysiology Lab, and Hatun Zengin-Bolatkale, Ph.D. research assistant professor of Hearing & Speech Sciences.

“The approach used in this study is innovative because it represents the first project to explore systematically physiologic emotion-cognitive mechanisms in stuttering using a multi-method approach,” Jones said.

Serotonin 2C receptor and regulating food intake in PWS

Prader-Willi syndrome (PWS) is a genetic developmental disorder resulting from a loss of paternal gene expression on chromosome15q11-13. The PWS phenotype includes not only intellectual disability but also morbid obesity. While numerous animal models have been developed with deletions of individual or combinations of imprinted genes in the PWS critical region 4-9, no effective therapies are currently available to address the molecular etiology, rather than the symptoms, of this syndrome.

Ronald Emeson, Ph.D.

Ronald Emeson, Ph.D.

This project is a collaboration between the laboratories of Ronald Emeson, Ph.D., an expert in the functional role(s) of RNA editing for transcripts encoding proteins critical for nervous system function, and Masoud Ghamari-Langroudi, Ph.D., an expert in the biophysical characterization of feeding behavior. They will test the hypothesis that alterations in RNA processing for transcripts encoding the 2C-subtype of serotonin receptor (5HT2C) are responsible, in part, for the feeding alterations observed in PWS.

Jan Rosemergy is VKC deputy director and director of Communications and Dissemination.

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