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Professor Receives Grant to Examine Executive Function Across Pediatric Psychiatric Disorders

Chandan Vaidya sits at a computer reviewing material on the screen as a student stands over her listening

Psychology professor Chandan Vaidya reviews work with an undergraduate student in her Developmental Cognitive Neuroscience Lab.

February 2, 2017 – Cognitive neuroscientist Chandan Vaidya is using a $2 million grant from the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) to determine a more personalized approach to treating children who have behavior regulation problems, regardless of their psychiatric diagnoses. 

Vaidya, professor and chair of the Department of Psychology in Georgetown College, uses brain imaging to examine executive functioning in children and adults and those diagnosed with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) and Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD), which are lifelong conditions.

Nature of Executive Dysfunction

“The nature of executive dysfunction is diverse in children with the same diagnosis,” Vaidya says. “This is a major problem in psychiatry as it is difficult to pinpoint exactly what aspect of behavior should be treated in the child one is evaluating.”

The psychology professor says she and her collaborators from Children’s National Medical Center will use novel data-driven methods to identify subgroups with similar executive dysfunction and look at their underlying neural circuitry using functional magnetic resonance imaging.

Executive function is a set of cognitive processes that include the ability to control attention, impulses and emotions in order to focus on the task at hand. These processes are important for reasoning, problem-solving and planning and determine success in school and in social behavior, she says.

“Our results will provide neurobiologically validated behavioral dimensions that can aid in decisions psychiatrists and psychologists have to make about diagnosis and most importantly, choice of treatment for children with executive dysfunction,” Vaidya adds. “Current practice involves a lot of trial and error.”

Cutting Across Diagnostic Labels

students gather around professor Chandan Vaidya's computer as she talks about her cognitive researchThe professor has long been interested in executive function problems and how they manifest in psychiatric conditions such as ADHD, Autism, anxiety, depression and other mood disorders.

Vaidya’s grant is part of an NIMH initiative called Research Domain Criteria (RDOC), which is attempting to reconceptualize psychiatric disorders by recognizing that symptoms cut across diagnostic labels.

“Anxiety is not confined to anxiety disorders, for example, but is found, in different levels, in all psychiatric disorders,” she explains. “Studying or treating anxiety only if the person meets criteria for an anxiety disorder would be beneficial to neither the patient nor science at large.”

Important Ramifications

Vaidya says very early detection of self-regulation abilities in children can indicate any impairment to executive function development that may impact quality of life in adulthood.

“Regulation of our cognition is fundamental to who we are,” Vaidya says. “It’s not very well understood, but it has important ramifications in the context of failures, school achievements and adjustment to life.”