Leading the Vanguard: James Booth

James Booth, Ph.D.

Leading the Vanguard is a new, recurring feature in Notables that highlights the research and clinical interests and impact of Vanderbilt Kennedy Center members and investigators.

Vanderbilt Kennedy Center Investigator James Booth, Ph.D., Patricia and Rodes Hart Chair and professor of Psychology and Human Development, is interested in how children’s brains develop academic skills like reading, math, and scientific reasoning. Much of his research uses functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), which allows an examination of the brain’s structure and function. His lab explores research questions such as:

  • How can we use neuroimaging to predict who will show reading and language gains?
  • Is the brain network for reading development universal or language specific?
  • Can learning to read be accelerated through non-invasive brain stimulation?
  • How are the brains of children with ADHD different from brains of children without it?

Boy reading book

His lab, the Brain Development Laboratory has developed a highly informative website that uses plain language to explain complicated topics, and provides links to publications, and his current projects.

In the interview below, Booth explains why he began studying individual differences in the brain, explains the focus of his current research, and shares why he values membership in the Vanderbilt Kennedy Center.

What attracted you to developmental disabilities research?

Since I was an undergraduate, I have always been interested in individual differences in the cognitive and brain basis of academic achievement. I am intrigued by what makes people tick. This interest in individual differences led me to first study dyslexia, dyscalculia, and then ADHD. At least 10% of children in the United States are affected by learning disabilities or ADHD, so our work has the potential to affect millions of children.

If we understand the mechanisms of these individual differences, then we will be in a much better position to design effective assessment and intervention approaches. Our work has practical implications, but also allows us to refine our models of how the brain learns to read and do math.

What are your current research interests and what challenges does it address?

At the most general level, I am interested in brain development. My focus has been on the development of language, reading, and math, and on the role of executive functions in these areas. I am currently conducting a large-scale fMRI study examining language development in 5- to 8-year-old children who are typically developing and who have language disorder.

Our first basic question was whether we could establish specialization for language in 5- to 6-year olds, as this has not been demonstrated before. We showed that Broca’s area in the frontal cortex is specialized. One subregion is involved in processing grammar, and another subregion is involved in processing vocabulary. In addition, we showed that Wernicke’s areas in the temporal cortex is specialized. The middle region is specialized for vocabulary, whereas the superior region is involved in processing phonology, or the sound structure of language. We are now investigating whether developmental language disorder is associated with lack of specialization in 5- to 6-year-olds, and whether increases in specialization over a 2-year period are blunted in developmental language disorder. We are also interested in whether early differences in language specialization are related to later problems with learning to read.

Will you share an example that illustrates the impact of your work?

We have a patent for a biomarker to diagnose ADHD. There is a tremendous need to develop objective behavioral or neural measures to accurately identify children who have ADHD. Currently, the diagnosis is primarily based on a subjective interview with the child, parent, and teacher. The main advance of our work is to use an ensemble of theoretically motivated tasks that children perform in a fMRI scanner. The tasks involve spatial working memory, specifically, determining whether a letter was presented in the same location as before. The key aspect of these spatial working memory tasks is that they manipulated reward and feedback, areas of weakness in children with ADHD. Children received either a large (ten cents) or small (one cent) reward. In addition, children either received feedback on whether their answer was correct or not, or did not receive feedback. Only by using this ensemble of tasks did we achieve accurate diagnosis of ADHD based on the brain images. We were 95% accurate in identifying ADHD in children!

What are your reasons for becoming a Vanderbilt Kennedy Center (VKC) Member? How does the VKC enhance the work you do?

I am deeply committed to understanding the mechanisms of human development, and how it is affected by developmental disabilities. I became a Vanderbilt Kennedy Center member so I could establish collaborative relationships with other talented people with similar interests. In addition, the Vanderbilt Kennedy Center has fantastic relationships with the community. I hope to interface more in participant recruitment, but also to help host workshops on second language learning for speech-language and educational specialists. In addition, I aim to access and contribute to the neuroimaging resources and expertise at the Vanderbilt Kennedy Center.

View a brief video of James Booth.

Courtney Taylor is VKC associate director of Communications and Dissemination.

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This is a monthly email of Vanderbilt Kennedy Center Notables published by the Communications staff of the Vanderbilt Kennedy Center. Between issues of Notables, you can stay up to date on the latest Vanderbilt Kennedy Center news, information, and resources via the Vanderbilt Kennedy Center’s Facebook page.