Leading the Vanguard: Katherine Gotham

Katherine Gotham

Vanderbilt Kennedy Center member Katherine Gotham, Ph.D., assistant professor of Psychiatry & Behavioral Sciences, has a number of clinical research interests, including (1) the autism phenotype and its measurement, (2) depression science and its translation to autism spectrum disorder (ASD), and (3) emotional health outcomes in adolescents and adults with ASD.

Gotham played a central role in revising the algorithms of the Autism Diagnostic Observation Schedule (ADOS). Her work resulted in the creation of several new algorithms for narrower age/language groups that have better sensitivity and/or specificity of ASD classification. These algorithms are now used worldwide to aid accuracy in ASD diagnosis. Further, the evidence for combining social and communication symptoms into a single domain that issued from this work was influential to the revision of ASD criteria in the DSM-5 (Diagnostic Statistical Manual, 5th edition).

Over the past several years, Gotham has shifted her research focus to study the role of affect and reward in autism spectrum disorder. Her current work focuses on depression as a leading source of clinical impairment in adolescents and adults on the autism spectrum.

In the interview below, Gotham shares why she is drawn to developmental disabilities research, why her current research on mood in people with ASD is important, and why she values membership in the Vanderbilt Kennedy Center.

What attracted you to developmental disabilities research?

My mother was a speech-language pathologist who sought out additional certification related to ASD while I was in high school. Her enthusiasm shaped my initial interest, but since beginning my career, I have gained, by birth and by marriage, a few new extended family members who have developmental disabilities. With or without that history, my work is “personal” by this point, given all the families I have met along the way.

What are your current research interests and what challenges do they address?

People with ASD experience depression at rates 3 to 4 times higher than the general population. My team is trying to identify specific pathways along which depressed mood develops in adults with ASD. We want to make educated guesses about who might be more vulnerable to mood problems and how we can best tailor interventions to be more effective in preventing and treating depression in persons with ASD. Our lab focuses on repetitive thinking and social motivation as potential contributors to depression in ASD. I am also interested in how people with autism process emotion at the neural, cognitive, and psychosocial levels.

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

During my training, I ran a long-term social group for young adults with ASD.* Over the decade that we knew them, several of our members cycled in and out of depressive episodes. Even when life was going relatively well from an outsider’s perspective, these adults quit jobs, dropped out of college programs, and saw precious relationships lapse in part because of depression. I came away from the broader experience believing that we need to attack depressed mood from lots of fronts—both helping individuals with developmental disabilities to advocate for a better social context, but also looking at internal factors that might spark or maintain mood problems.

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

I most value the Vanderbilt Kennedy Center for providing a professional and social community. When we come together—across departments and institutes throughout Vanderbilt University Medical Center and Vanderbilt University—to pull toward the same goals, we create something bigger than the sum of its parts. All scientists seek to maximize the impact of their work. To have fun while doing so is a very special bonus.

*Dr. Gotham currently supervises a social group at Vanderbilt University Medical Center for young adults with ASD. For more information email her at katherine.gotham@vanderbilt.edu.

Courtney Taylor is VKC associate director of Communications and Dissemination.

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