Leading the Vanguard: Kathryn Humphreys

Kathryn Humphreys smiling

Kathryn (Kate) Humphreys, Ph.D., is an assistant professor of Psychology & Human Development and a new member of the Vanderbilt Kennedy Center (VKC). Dr. Humphreys is trained as a clinical psychologist with expertise in infant mental health. Her work centers on identifying pathways to the development of psychopathology (e.g., including attentional and emotional disorders). Given the importance of early experience and plasticity of the developing brain, Dr. Humphreys focuses on how experiences in early life may be strengthened through prevention and intervention programs. Her research includes tools from neuroscience, including magnetic resonance imaging, in infants, children, and adults, as well as biological markers of aging and health.

In the interview below, Humphreys shares what inspires her research in developmental disabilities, what she’s learned through her work, and how membership with the Vanderbilt Kennedy Center helps her achieve her goals.

Tell me about your attraction to developmental disabilities research. Do you have a personal connection to disability?

I am a clinical psychologist by training with expertise in infant mental health. My clinical training involved work with children from birth to adolescence, as well as their families, and has been extremely enriching to my life. I primarily use a developmental perspective to try to learn how best to determine who would benefit from extra help, and when in development is the best time to intervene. Most of my early career work focused on attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder, and like most of us, I have been firsthand how ADHD and related symptoms can set-up additional obstacles to reaching one’s goals. I was fortunate to have the opportunity to help draft the diagnostic criteria for this disorder for Zero to Three’s DC:0–5 Diagnostic Classification of Mental Health and Developmental Disorders of Infancy and Early Childhood.

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

I am particularly interested in understanding the links between early experience and child functioning. For example, how do experiences of stress, including abuse or neglect, affect biology and behavior. I also study how experiences of responsive and sensitive caregiving can buffer children from the effects of stress. Early in life, our brains are more plastic than they will ever be again, making the impact of environmental experiences during this period even more important for shaping brain development. As interventionists, we can harness that increased plasticity to offer supports to infants and young children to set the foundation for longer-term functioning. My lab is increasingly interested in how supporting women during the transition to parenthood may promote health in both mothers and their offspring.

Do you have a story that illustrates the impact of your work?

In Romania after the fall of Nicolae Ceaușescu, there existed a large number of children living in institutional (orphanage) care. In order to inform the best placements for these children in which many people believed institutional care was an appropriate setting for young children, investigators from the U.S. conducted a randomized controlled trial of foster care as an alternative to institutional care for children abandoned at or shortly after birth. I joined the team when the children were entering adolescence, and we are now following them into adulthood. We found strong causal evidence that being with a family, rather than in institutional care, is associated with dramatic gains in cognitive, language, social, and emotional functioning. Now as young adults, those young children randomized to foster care have higher IQs and greater adaptive functioning (e.g., how they function in daily life) than those in the care as usual condition. These findings indicate the importance of the early environment on long-term outcomes and are helpful for informing policies in the U.S. with the settings in which migrant children are held. Children fare best in families with committed caregivers, and such settings can promote resilience following early adversity.

What are your reasons for becoming a Vanderbilt Kennedy Center (VKC) Member?

The VKC offers a unique opportunity for developmental scientists like me to interact with others with highly relevant expertise. Although I have only been on the faculty for one year, my program of research has grown to incorporate methods and perspectives from other VKC members. Most recently, I developed a collaboration to tie brain development and early language experiences to language development in young children. Further, I have been able to consult with VKC members on their ongoing work and to provide substantive guidance on how to assess stress in the lives of the children and families that they study and work with. I appreciate being able to bring my own skills and training to a group of researchers interested in expanding their work and for the opportunity to learn from the innovative projects that are ongoing with VKC affiliated investigators and members.

Elizabeth Turner is associate director of VKC Communications.

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