2022-23 Nicholas Hobbs Discovery Awards, Director’s Strategic Priorities Grants announced

Hobbs Discovery & Director’s Strategic Priorities Grants

The Vanderbilt Kennedy Center (VKC) Nicholas Hobbs Discovery Awards and Director’s Strategic Priorities Grants have been announced for the 2022-23 award cycle. Projects address spatial processing, repetitive movements, adaptation of an intervention for Spanish-speaking families, and improving diagnostic approaches and treatment strategies for autistic individuals with co-occurring intellectual disability.

Both funding mechanisms are meant to provide seed money to pilot studies in preparation for submitting competitive grant applications to federal agencies or private foundations. The VKC Eunice Kennedy Shriver Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities Research Center (IDDRC) uses philanthropic funds to support Nicholas Hobbs Discovery Awards, an internal mechanism to support interdisciplinary research consistent with the IDDRC translational research mission. Director’s Strategic Priorities Grants are open to VKC members for projects that are directed to original, empirical research either 1) utilizing novel methodologies for studying intellectual and developmental disabilities (e.g. EEG hyper-scanning, trans-species approaches, neuromodulation, health policy research); or, 2) research on IDD in diverse, underrepresented and underserved populations. Both funding mechanisms are awarded annually through a competitive process.

2022-23 Nicholas Hobbs Discovery Awards

Spatial processing in autism: behavioral and neural correlates

Although sensory features are a common element of autism, our knowledge of how these impact spatial processing and spatial representations of the world is quite limited. This is surprising, as spatial, and particularly multisensory, spatial processes are fundamental in scaffolding social communication and sensorimotor behaviors. To better understand the nature of spatial multisensory functional differences in autism, researchers will leverage previously developed and novel biobehavioral paradigms to examine how autistic children and non-autistic controls integrate paired audiovisual cues as a function of spatial location. Collectively, the team believes this work will provide foundational insights into differences in multisensory spatial abilities in autism; work that will have strong implications for future interventions targeting spatial processing with the goal of improving social communicative and sensorimotor abilities.

Exploration of a novel neural circuit in ASD-associated repetitive movements

Repetitive movement or “stimming” motor behaviors are amongst the least studied and most enigmatic symptoms of autism. Stimming has been linked to anxiety in autism and has been proposed as a means by which people with autism reduce anxiety. Consistent with this idea, animal model studies have suggested that repetitive movements can ameliorate stress-induced anxiety-like behaviors. However, our understanding of brain circuits involved in movement-induced anxiolysis is very limited.

Winder and Cascio’s labs made two parallel discoveries (in mice and in humans) that provide an opportunity to deepen our knowledge of these circuits. This research will expand on these initial findings. The successful completion will set the groundwork for functional studies in mouse models that iterate with human imaging approaches. This will develop a conceptual understanding of circuits driven by stimming to provide anxiolysis in persons with autism, shedding light on this enigmatic behavior to a) further destigmatize autism, and b) to open up novel treatment opportunities to improve affect regulation in individuals with autism.

2022-23 Director’s Strategic Priorities Grants

Adaptation of the Family Behavior Support app for Spanish-speaking families

Children of Latinx or Hispanic origin make up 26 percent of the population in the United States, yet they are underrepresented in behavioral intervention research. Early and effective intervention is crucial for improving long-term outcomes for young children with challenging behaviors, and especially so for young children with intellectual or developmental disabilities. The purpose of this project is to adapt and pilot test the Family Behavior Support application (FBSApp), an intervention tool aimed at supporting parents in implementing interventions with their young children with challenging behaviors in home settings, for use with Spanish-speaking, Latinx/Hispanic children and families.

Research supports the use of the FBSApp for increasing parents’ use of intervention strategies and reducing young children’s challenging behaviors. Utilizing a mixed-methods approach, researchers will employ qualitative methods (i.e., semi-structured interview, focus groups) to inform the necessary cultural adaptations to the Spanish translation of the FBSApp materials and strategies, and quantitative methods (i.e., single case experimental design) to pilot test the FBSApp Español with Latinx/Hispanic families in the United States and Mexico. The goal of this project is to produce a fully operational application for use by Spanish-speaking families.

Theta Burst Stimulation in the Diagnosis of Autism Spectrum Disorder

Autism spectrum disorder is a highly prevalent and heterogenous condition, which presents with restricted interests/behaviors and deficits in social interactions. When the latter is at its most severe, individuals may be non-speaking or minimally verbal. Co-morbid intellectual disability is also present in 31 to 50 percent of individuals with autism. However, individuals with autism and co-morbid intellectual disability comprise only 6 percent of participants in autism research, with rates of inclusion worsening over time. Minimally verbal persons have also long been excluded from clinical research. Thus, a disparity of care has resulted due to limited diagnostic approaches and treatment strategies for the most severely impacted autistic individuals.

This study aims to address the gap in autism research for minimally verbal and intellectual delayed persons by conducting cTBS diagnostic protocols in both populations and comparing these results to neurotypical controls. Overall, the objectives are to determine feasibility of continuous theta burst stimulation and resting state function MRI in autistic patients with co-morbid intellectual disability.

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