Research News

Vanderbilt’s Humphreys receives Brain and Behavior Research Foundation Young Investigator Grant

John Russell

Kathryn Humphreys, assistant professor of psychology and human development at Vanderbilt Peabody College of education and human development, was awarded a Young Investigator Grant from the Brain and Behavior Research Foundation in an announcement made September 21.

Young Investigator Grants, valued this year at more than $10.3 million, are given to some of the world’s most promising young scientists. Awarded annually, the grants support the work of early career investigators with innovative ideas for groundbreaking neurobiological research seeking to identify causes, improve treatments and develop prevention strategies for psychiatric disorders.

“This funding provides the opportunity to obtain training in techniques that will allow us to capitalize on the neuroimaging data we have already been collecting from newborn infants,” Humphreys says, “and it also will allow us to follow them over time to assess their emotions and behavior later in development.”

Humphreys received a basic research grant from the foundation to study brain development in newborn infants. Specifically, her team is focusing on the bed nucleus of the stria terminalis or BNST, a tiny brain region associated with vigilance to threat. This region drives the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis response to stress. To study this, Humphreys and her team will leverage an existing longitudinal dataset of pregnant women and their newborn offspring to examine data collected from 125 women assessed through interviews for their exposure to stress during pregnancy. The team also will collect additional information regarding infant affect and temperament, a well-established risk factor for anxiety disorders, at age 6 months. Humphreys hypothesizes that BNST volume and connectivity mediate the associations between prenatal stress exposure and infant temperament.

“Examining the BNST, often overshadowed by the amygdala, may provide new insights into the development of anxiety disorders,” Humphreys says. “My lab aims to identify causes of individual differences in development with the goal to intervene at critical periods so that we may improve child outcomes.”

Recipients for this year’s grants were selected by the foundation’s Scientific Council, comprised of 181 leading experts across disciplines in brain and behavior research. These include one Nobel Prize winner, three former directors of the National Institute of Mental Health, and four recipients of the National Medal of Science. In addition, members of the National Academy of Sciences, National Institutes of Health, chairs of psychiatry and neuroscience departments at leading medical institutions, and members of the National Academy of Medicine are among those on the Scientific Council.

“BBRF Young Investigator Grants have led to groundbreaking and important new research that has improved the lives of people living with mental illness,” says Dr. Herbert Pardes, president of the foundation’s Scientific Council and executive vice chair of the board of trustees at New York-Presbyterian Hospital.

“These scientists are making great strides in basic research, new technologies, next-generation therapies and early intervention techniques. This kind of out-of-the box research offers the best hope for change.”

This year, the foundation’s Scientific Council reviewed 1,012 applications to select 150 Young Investigators. About 80 percent of the projects funded are for basic research, the wellspring of innovation in brain research for understanding what happens in the brain to cause mental illness. Since 1987, the foundation has awarded more than $418 million in research grants to more than 6,000 scientists globally.