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Translational Analyses of Chronic Aberrant Behavior Across the Life Span 2

Monday, January 4, 2016

photo of Dean Williams

Dean Williams, Project Director

Dean Williams, Ph.D., Project Director

Kathryn Saunders, Ph.D., University of Kansas
Iser DeLeon, Ph.D., Johns Hopkins School of Medicine
SungWoo Kahng, Ph.D., Johns Hopkins School of Medicine
Thomas Hurley, University of Kansas
Kathleen Hine, Ph.D., University of Kansas

Funded by: Kennedy Krieger Institute under a grant from National Institute of Child Health and Human Development

Collaborating Agencies: Johns Hopkins School of Medicine; University of Massachusetts School of Medicine, Kennedy Krieger Institute

Brief Summary

This project is designed to increase basic knowledge of the etiology and maintenance of severe, chronic aberrant behaviors (CAB) and develop treatments based on this knowledge. This research program will translate basic-research findings from laboratory studies of both animal and human subjects, first to more naturalistic settings and activities, and then to clinical-treatment settings.

The laboratory studies have shown, paradoxically, that schedules of positive reinforcement can, in some circumstances, be aversive. When relatively rich conditions of positive reinforcement transition to relatively lean conditions of positive reinforcement, subjects show prolonged, counterproductive disruptions in behavior (pausing). Further, if a means of escape from the situation is provided, subjects escape. That is, negative incentive shifts are aversive, and thus motivate maladaptive escape behaviors. It is important to note that the relatively lean reinforcement conditions are not inherently aversive. It is the context that creates the aversiveness. In the laboratory, these findings have a great deal of generality. In the natural environment, schedules of positive reinforcement are ubiquitous. The present research program is the first to integrate these laboratory findings with the problem of chronic aberrant behavior.

In the clinic, a current, successful treatment strategy has been to identify the behavioral function of aberrant behavior on an individual basis (i.e. a functional analysis), and use this information to design treatment. Escape (negative reinforcement) has been shown to be a primary motive for the aberrant behavior of a substantial portion of treated individuals. Explaining, at a behavioral-process level, what makes certain activities aversive for some individuals has not been a primary goal of the treatment-oriented studies. Not surprisingly, given its paradoxical nature, the notion that escape can be a side effect of positive reinforcement has not been applied to either basic or clinical research in this area. Note that we do not suggest that negative incentive shifts account for all of aberrant behavior, or even all of escape-motivated aberrant behavior. Our preliminary work suggests, however, such pausing and escape can provide a functional analogue to a clinically significant portion of aberrant behavior, in that conditions that generate long pausing may predict aberrant behavior.

This research is designed to test the utility of the conceptualization in predicting the occurrence of stereotyped and self-injurious behaviors in persons with intellectual disabilities (IDD). In keeping with the translational nature of the research program, studies have been conducted following the bench-to-bedside approach conducted in the laboratory, naturalistic, and clinical settings. In the naturalistic setting, three studies are being conducted for each of two CAB topographies (self injury/ aggression and stereotypy). These studies generally replicate laboratory procedures, but with modifications to better reflect the conditions of reinforcement and behaviors found in natural environments. 

Results have demonstrated that in tabletop tasks (sorting or matching objects) and in activities taken from participants’ daily living activities (such as chores, academic tasks, and leisure activities) follow the laboratory findings closely. In the laboratory, we give large or small amounts of reward for completing a number of button press requirements, and button pressing is disrupted primarily in the transition from the large reward to the small reward. In tabletop and naturalistic tasks behavior is disrupted (non-compliance) and undesirable behaviors (e.g., aggression) primarily in the transition from high-preference to lower-preference activities. Thus, shifts from relatively rich conditions (high preference or large reward) to relatively leaner conditions (low preference or small reward) are a source of aversive stimulation for this population and in those individuals with chronic histories of aberrant behaviors, may elicit aggression and self-injury.

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