Research News

Kujawa receives $1.45 million grant to study new intervention for child mental health

By Jenna Somers

woman with light brown hair in gray blazer and white blouse
Autumn Kujawa

A two-year, $1.45 million grant from the National Institute of Mental Health will support a study to test a novel therapeutic approach for preventing the emergence of anhedonia, a hallmark symptom of depression, in high-risk children. Autumn Kujawa, associate professor of psychology and human development at Vanderbilt Peabody College of education and human development, is leading the study in collaboration with Katie Burkhouse, assistant professor of psychiatry at Nationwide Children’s Hospital and The Ohio State University.

Characterized by loss of interest and pleasure, anhedonia is associated with increased risk for suicide and other poor health outcomes. Anhedonia is thought to be driven by low reward responsiveness, marked by blunted brain responses to positive events. According to Kujawa, prior research has demonstrated that children with low reward responsiveness whose mothers exhibited anhedonia are at risk for developing it later in life, but little is known about how to increase reward responsiveness.

To possibly prevent the emergence of anhedonia in high-risk children, Kujawa and her team have designed an intervention, Family Promoting Positive Emotions (F-PPE), for 8-to-12-year-old children and their mothers with a history of major depressive disorder with anhedonia. In their recently published pilot study in Behavior Research and Therapy, F-PPE showed promise in preventing the emergence of clinical symptoms among youth at elevated risk. With the NIMH grant, they will assess whether the intervention increases reward responsiveness in children, which could help to prevent anhedonia and depression. If the two-year project is successful, Kujawa and her team will launch a larger clinical trial to look at intervention outcomes across time.

“F-PPE is an innovative and exciting intervention that uses engaging materials and interactive sessions with a skills coach to teach children and parents cognitive and behavioral skills to up-regulate positive emotions in the family. Our preliminary studies provide support for the intervention, and this will be the first test of whether it can have effects on how the brain responds to positive events like receiving rewards,” Kujawa said.

Over the course of the study, the research team will examine the effects of F-PPE on momentary experiences of interest and pleasure as well as symptoms of anhedonia. Using electroencephalogram, they will measure changes in reward responsiveness as a possible explanation of the clinical effects of the intervention. The researchers believe that this study will advance understanding of how to translate affective neuroscience into an experimental therapeutic for prevention, which could lead to more personalized interventions to promote child mental health.

“Given that low reward response is observed across many mental health disorders, F-PPE offers significant potential to prevent the occurrence of not just depression, but also other disorders that are commonly observed as youth transition into adolescence,” Burkhouse said.