December 9, 2005

Symposium highlights Kennedy Center’s 40th

Featured Image

Pat Levitt, Ph.D., second from left, and Steven Gabbe, M.D., third from left, talk with NIH directors Thomas Insel, M.D., far left, Duane Alexander, M.D., and Story Landis, Ph.D., at the Vanderbilt Kennedy Center 40th Anniversary celebration.
photo by Tommy Lawson

Symposium highlights Kennedy Center’s 40th

Vanderbilt's Kennedy Center for Research on Human Development celebrated its 40th Anniversary last week with a scientific symposium held Wednesday at the Student Life Center.

The Kennedy Center was established in 1965 as a result of legislation signed by President John F. Kennedy, which aimed to improve the lives of children with developmental disabilities through collaborative and innovative research.

The interdisciplinary nature of the Kennedy Center is buoyed by the intimacy of the Vanderbilt campus and close-knit community of Vanderbilt researchers and clinicians, said Kennedy Center Director, Pat Levitt, Ph.D.

“Our founders at Peabody College had the intention of gathering scientific evidence that early diagnosis and intervention were the key approaches needed to benefit children with developmental disabilities and their families,” Levitt said. “At the time, it simply was not possible to do that in a traditional department setting that typically has a single focus.”

“The Kennedy family…knew firsthand, just how spare and barren the social, medical and psychological support available for families with developmentally disabled children,” said Harry Jacobson, M.D., vice chancellor for Health Affairs. Their support of a series of centers dedicated to the study of developmental disabilities was their most profound contribution, Jacobson said.

Directors of three National Institutes of Health branches – Duane Alexander, M.D., of the National Institute of Child Health and Development; Story Landis, Ph.D., of the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke; and Thomas Insel, M.D., of the National Institute of Mental Health – described their own institutes' histories and initiatives and highlighted the unique challenges facing mental health and human development research.

While the event was a celebration of the Kennedy Center's long history, the scientific presentations focused on the future, presenting ambitious goals and exciting new directions for research on developmental disabilities.

“Most of us come into this world intent on becoming experts on people…but people with autism become experts on things,” said Fred Volkmar, M.D., of Yale University. He demonstrated this apparent disinterest in other people with movie clips of social situations “seen through the eyes of an autistic child.”

Using a computerized device that tracks where children focus their eyes on a movie scene, Volkmar showed how autistic children avoided looking at the actors eyes, focusing either on their mouths or on seemingly irrelevant background objects, like light switches.

Eye-tracking, he said, could be used in very young children, possibly enabling diagnosis sooner than is currently possible.

If diagnosed early enough, Volkmar predicts that early interventions could dramatically improve adult outcomes.

Studying the basic biological mechanisms that govern brain development is also contributing to a better understanding of developmental disorders.

“The baby's brain is not just a miniature version of the adult brain, but is a dynamically changing structure in which circuits are not only being built but also modified by experience,” said Carla Shatz, Ph.D., of Harvard Medical School.

Using the visual system as an example, Shatz described how the ever-changing connections in the developing brain are influenced by both nature (genetic factors) and nurture (experience).

Shatz suggested that the prolonged period of development where 'local' circuits within certain brain regions are being formed is a particularly sensitive period of development because of its dependence on stimulation.

“This is the period where, when it goes awry, could cause many of the learning disabilities that we're thinking about here and are being worked on at the Kennedy Center,” she said.

Martin Seligman, Ph.D., of the University of Pennsylvania, ended the symposium on a 'positive' note. The author of more than 20 popular psychology books, Seligman addressed what he describes as 'positive psychology' and its implications and applications for treating people with developmental disabilities.

“The psychology of developmental disabilities has not been good enough…we've taken a remedial approach, a disease approach, where what we want to do is 'get rid of what's wrong.' That's only half of what we want to do,” he said.

“The other half is to identify the strengths that people have, enable them to use those strengths and, in the same way we develop remedial interventions, develop enhancements to enhance what makes like worth living.”