The UC Davis Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences and the UC Davis MIND Institute and were awarded a five-year grant for more than $3 million from the National Institute of Child Health and Development to research language development in young children with Down syndrome. Angela John Thurman, an assistant researcher in the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences and member of the MIND Institute faculty, will lead the multi-institution project.
“Research shows communication difficulties emerge within the first years of life for most children with Down syndrome,” Thurman said. “These early challenges create a developmental cascade that alters a child’s learning opportunities and trajectories for brain development.”
Thurman agrees with researchers who argue that interventions that target early development periods will likely yield the most widespread benefits. While Down syndrome is the leading genetic cause of intellectual disability, the development of evidence-based interventions lags behind that for other neurodevelopmental disorders because of a lack of research on the causes and consequences of the disorder. Recent discoveries using mouse models and advances in new interventions that target core symptoms of Down syndrome, however, led to the need for more robust translational research.
In collaboration with Colorado State University, Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center and the University of Louisville, Thurman and colleagues will evaluate the feasibility, utility and appropriateness of pre-linguistic and early spoken language measures for measuring the effects of interventions for young children with Down syndrome. They also will determine if the measures work differently among individuals with the disorder at different ages and ability levels to ensure the best tools are used in future treatment studies.
“The focus on language and its pre-linguistic precursors is important because language is the primary tool a child uses to relate to and interact with their environment,” Thurman said. “Thus, treatments leading to improvements in communication will enhance quality of life. Improving communication is also a top priority for parents.”
The study will include 150 children with Down syndrome between ages 2-8. Other UC Davis researchers include Danielle Harvey from the Department of Public Health Sciences and Leonard Abbeduto from the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences.