Leading the Vanguard: Sophia Vinci-Booher

Sophia Vinci-Booher headshot

VKC member Sophia Vinci-Booher, Ph.D., serves as assistant professor of Psychology and Human Development at Vanderbilt University. Her research investigates the neural mechanisms by which written communication tasks, such as handwriting and drawing, facilitate the learning of foundational literacy skills in early childhood and develop into important tools for learning and communication throughout adolescence and adulthood.

In the interview below, Vinci-Booher shares what inspires her research, what she has 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.

I am most driven by a desire to understand what allows individuals to change and why those changes are sometimes temporary and sometimes more permanent. My intuition tells me that much of what allows people to change is rooted in how they process information in their environment – how they perceive their environment. Yet so much of our environment is shaped by our motor actions – by walking towards an object of interest and reaching out to pick it up, or by walking away. Why do some individuals select actions that optimize certain learning outcomes? How and why do these actions change over time? I am attracted to developmental disabilities research because I believe that understanding how actions affect perception will generate advancements in interventions that will allow individuals to change in ways that will positively impact their lives.

What are your current research interests?

My overarching research interests lie in the relationship between the brain and learning with a focus on the role of the motor system in that relationship. Currently, I am most interested in looking more closely at the time course of brain changes associated with learning. We recently found that some brain changes associated with learning (e.g., changes in brain function) unfold over different time courses than the behavioral changes associated with learning (e.g., changes in visual recognition). While the brain changes were temporary, the behavioral changes were longer-lasting. How intriguing! What, then, was the purpose of the temporary brain changes? How might they contribute to the behavioral changes – to learning?

We are currently designing a study that will characterize the brain changes that occur throughout the first year of formal schooling at one-month intervals to capture the dynamics of brain changes during an intensive learning period. Findings are expected to provide insight into how the brain supports learning that will lay the groundwork for brain-based research on the dosing of learning interventions.

Do you have a story about a research participant or a breakthrough that illustrates the impact of your work?

A major focus of my work is on how producing letters of the alphabet by hand (i.e., handwriting) might support early reading development and, more specifically, how the brain mediates that process. When children write letters, motor and visual brain systems are active. Activation in motor and visual brain regions during writing is expected because they are performing a motor action that they can see. However, it would not be expected to see activation in the motor system when children simply look at letters – yet this is what happens! The motor system is active during passive letter perception, and the effect is especially strong if the child has had recent handwriting practice with those letters.

In the Learning and NeuroDevelopment Lab (LANDLAB) at Vanderbilt University, we are answering questions spurred by this breakthrough finding, such as: (1) Is activity in the motor system during perception relevant for behavior and learning? (2) How might individual differences in brain structure affect the impact of the motor system on behavior and learning? (3) Is involvement of the motor system particularly important for learning in certain developmental windows (e.g., early childhood, childhood, adolescence, adulthood) or at certain points in the time course of learning (e.g., beginning, intermediate, advanced)? Answers to these questions can help to inspire and inform new interventions for developmental disabilities and may be especially impactful for disabilities accompanied by motor difficulties.

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

The VKC is an exceptional community of researchers with expertise in developmental disability and human development and who employ a broad range of methodologies and approaches. VKC researchers are supported in their scientific endeavors through the VKC Scientific Cores that assist researchers in various ways, including support for developing new tools and methods. The VKC interfaces with service providers, advocates, and policy makers to raise the impact of the research conducted by VKC researchers to ensure that findings are translated to practice, thereby positively impacting the lives of people with disabilities and their family and support systems. As a VKC member, I have the opportunity to engage with this exciting community of researchers and access amazing resources to support research that makes a difference in people’s lives.

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