Vanderbilt Kennedy Center (VKC) investigator Beth Malow, M.D., M.S., is Burry Chair in Cognitive Childhood Development, professor of Neurology and Pediatrics, and director of the Vanderbilt Sleep Disorders Division. She and her colleagues examine the relation of sleep and sleep disorders to a variety of neurological, medical, and psychiatric disorders, including developmental disabilities, such as autism spectrum disorders, Down syndrome, Prader-Willi syndrome, and Williams syndrome.
In the interview below, Malow 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?
My sons are both on the autism spectrum, and after they were born, I was encouraged to pursue research and clinical work in sleep and autism (I was a sleep specialist at the time). I did some digging in the literature and was amazed to see how common sleep problems were in autism and also how little was known about the causes and treatments. Around the same time, I was asked to present at the MIND institute’s conference on epilepsy and autism and talk about sleep, so I needed to learn quickly! I applied and received a Discovery grant from Vanderbilt entitled “Sleep in Children with Autism” and started working with Wendy Stone (founder of TRIAD) and Susan McGrew (autism clinician) on descriptive studies of sleep.
What are your current research interests and what problem(s) or challenge(s) does it address? What do you for fun when you’re not working?
The overarching focus of my research is to improve the physical health of individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities across the lifespan. I’m involved in many different interesting projects, from online modules that allow families to take part in research from home, to telehealth educational sessions (Project ECHO) for community clinicians who wish to take care of adults with autism, to trials of novel preparations of melatonin for sleep, to projects combining clinical information from Vanderbilt’s electronic health record with genetic data.
When I’m not working, I sing in an a cappella women’s ensemble (Metro Nashville Chorus of Sweet Adelines International) and the United Voices of Vanderbilt. I also co-moderate a civil discourse group, Common Ground Nashville. Music and finding common ground give me a great deal of positive energy!
Do you have a story about a research participant or a breakthrough that illustrates the impact of your work?
I’ve been impressed at how getting a good night’s sleep can change everything, for people and for their families. We all know how we feel when we don’t sleep – grumpy, grouchy, with a tendency to send a nasty email or tweet. When we sleep well, it improves not only our health but our daytime functioning and the entire family. I’ve seen children whose sleep is improved with simple behavioral measures or sometimes medications have improved outcomes – at school, in the overall lives – and their parents are well rested, too!
What are your reasons for becoming a Vanderbilt Kennedy Center (VKC) Investigator? How does the VKC enhance the work you do?
Becoming a VKC Investigator has been gratifying because I am part of a larger community. The VKC enhances my work through the rich resources it provides for research and advocacy, with the people of the VKC its richest resource.
Elizabeth Turner is associate director of VKC Communications.