VKC Hobbs Discovery and Strategic Priorities grants announced

The Vanderbilt Kennedy Center (Vanderbilt University)
The Vanderbilt Kennedy Center (Vanderbilt University)

By Courtney Taylor

A Nicholas Hobbs Discovery Grant and a Director’s Strategic Priorities Grant have been awarded to Vanderbilt Kennedy Center investigators for 2019-20. The grants aim to further understanding of how social information is processed within the reward circuit and explore the creation of an objective measure of social information processing.

“It’s always exciting to support creative, interdisciplinary research endeavors, and our grant awardees this year are innovative and collaborative,” said Jeffrey L. Neul, Vanderbilt Kennedy Center director and Annette Schaffer Eskind Chair. “These awards are meant to provide seed money to preclinical or clinical pilot studies in preparation for submitting competitive grant applications to federal agencies or private foundations. It’s critical that we continue to fund these innovative and multidisciplinary studies, so we are grateful to our VKC Leadership Council members and other friends whose generous gifts make these grants possible.”

The topic, principal investigator, and co-investigator/collaborator for the 2019-20 Hobbs Discovery Grant are:

“Consequences of early immune activation on nucleus accumbens circuit function,” Brad Grueter, PI (Anesthesiology); Erin S. Calipari, Co-PI (Pharmacology)

The topic, principal investigator, and co-investigator for the Director’s Strategic Priorities Grant are:

“Interpersonal neural synchrony as a marker of social engagement in children with ASD,” Blythe Corbett, PI (Psychiatry) and Sasha Key, Co-PI (Hearing and Speech Sciences)

Nicholas Hobbs Discovery Grant

Previous research from the Grueter and Calipari labs have demonstrated that key components of immune signaling contribute to reward processing by the nucleus accumbens. Epidemiological studies have linked immunological factors to autism spectrum disorders. The investigators’ research efforts using a model of early immune activation aim to elucidate the molecular and circuit modifications induced by these immunological factors that ultimately contribute to alterations in reward processing.

“Understanding how social information is processed within the reward circuit has the potential to uncover molecular targets with positive therapeutic potential,” Grueter said. “It is our vision that the specificity of our approach will uncover a novel therapeutic tool to help treat social dysfunction.”

Director’s Strategic Priorities Grant

Started in 2018, the Director’s Strategic Priorities Pilot Grants are directed to original empirical research that will contribute to an understanding of neurodiversity, or that will advance neuroengineering methods related to the knowledge and treatment of neurodevelopmental disorders.

Corbett and Key’s study aims to increase our understanding of the mechanisms needed for successful real-life social functioning.

“Children with ASD experience difficulties engaging in social interactions with others, but the mechanisms underlying this difficulty are not yet fully understood,” Key said. “Until now, most research in ASD has focused on individual components of social information processing, such as face detection or emotion identification. However, real-life social interactions are more complex and involve coordination of behavior between individuals. Our goal is to examine the neural mechanisms of this social synchrony.”

The study will use a natural, dynamic social interaction, which Key says should provide a more accurate representation of individual’s strengths and weaknesses, yielding new data critical for understanding the mechanisms needed for successful real-life social functioning.

“The brain activity recorded in freely behaving persons will provide an objective measure of social information processing that could be used across ages and ability levels,” Key said. “In the future, this new assessment could help identify markers of risk for social difficulties, evaluate treatment effects, and make personalized care decisions for individuals with a variety of developmental disabilities.”