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Postdoctoral Training in Translational IDD Research

Tuesday, September 8, 2009
Photo of Dean Williams

Dean Williams, PhD

Dean Williams joins 12 other University of Kansas multidisciplinary researchers who have extensive experience in training predoctoral and postdoctoral students and make up the faculty for Postdoctoral Training in Translational IDD (Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities) Research, a new five-year grant; directed by Kate Saunders, PhD. and co-director John Columbo, PhD.

Dr. Williams is a senior research professor in the Life Span Institute Parsons Research Center. He received his Ph.D. in Psychology from the University of Florida, and did post-doctoral training in neuroscience and behavioral pharmacology at the Bowman Gray School of Medicine. He is a fellow of Division 25 of the American Psychological Association. Williams has been the editor of the Experimental Analysis of Human Behavior Bulletin and served on the editorial boards of the Journal of the Experimental Analysis of Behavior, The Behavior Analyst, and the Experimental Analysis of Human Behavior Bulletin. Williams’ mentoring philosophy is to promote the development of independent programs of “use-inspired basic research,” that is, research that explores basic behavioral processes, but is directed by problems of human behavior.

Close Up: An example of translational research

To explain what characterizes translational research, consider three facets of Williams’ research addressing serious problem behaviors, such as aggression and self injury, exhibited by many individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities (IDD). In approaching this problem, Williams made a novel connection between applied-research findings and findings from basic laboratory research conducted with animals. To make this connection, Williams had to be well versed in the literature on the clinical problem, and also in the basic behavioral processes that appeared to be related to the clinical problem. Applied research has shown that a substantial portion of problem behavior is maintained by negative reinforcement in the form of escape. That is, the behaviors serve to remove the individual from aversive stimuli. The conditions that produce escape-motivated aberrant behavior in the applied studies, however, often involve seemingly benign events such as the presentation of an educational task by a teacher. What the applied research had not provided was a process-level account of why such events are aversive to some individuals and not others, and/or at some times and not others.

Williams drew on basic research, conducted with animals, showing that schedules of positive reinforcement can, under specifiable circumstances, become aversive and produce escape. This counterintuitive outcome might explain why seemingly benign events produce maladaptive escape behaviors in individuals with IDD. The first step in the research program was the investigation of this phenomenon in laboratory studies of human subjects. For this portion of the research program, Williams collaborated with an investigator at West Virginia University, Mike Perone, who had conducted some of the seminal basic animal studies. Their studies have shown that schedules of positive reinforcement that maintain behavior perfectly well can nonetheless promote escape responses if they follow a “better” reinforcement condition.

Currently, the project is on a path to fully model the clinical condition in the laboratory by demonstrating problem behavior under conditions that promote escape in animals and humans (R01 HD044731). These studies also will measure participants’ physiological reaction to experimental events. Upcoming studies will take a step outside the laboratory, to model maladaptive escape in the more natural environment. This programmatic effort will also test potential treatment procedures, first in the laboratory, and then in the natural environment. Thus, studies in the future will flow from use-inspired basic to applied research, and vice versa. For this more applied portion of the research program, Williams is collaborating with researchers at Kennedy-Krieger Institute of Johns Hopkins, another IDDRC (Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities Research Center) that is the leading treatment facility for aberrant behavior along with a third IDDRC, at University Of Massachusetts Medical Center. A new collaborative Program Project grant (PO1) involving these three institutions has just been funded.

At the same time that strands of the research program are moving towards application, new basic questions are being explored. The masters’ thesis of Adam Brewer, a student who is jointly supervised by Williams and KU faculty Greg Madden, is exploring rat strain differences in susceptibility to the generation of problem behaviors. Two strains, one of which is hypersensitive to stressors and aversive stimuli, are being compared to see whether the hypersensitive strain pauses longer than the less sensitive strain. This student has also spent time in Parsons, and has been involved in a human study. Taken as a whole, this research program exemplifies the interface of basic and applied research that is the nature of translational research.

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