Kennedy Center for Mental Retardation recognized by the NIH

April 16, 2007

The National Institute of Child Health and Human Development awarded a $4.6 million grant over five years to the University of Chicago's Joseph P. Kennedy Mental Retardation and Development Disabilities Center, one of only 14 such centers officially sanctioned by the National Institutes of Health.

Established in 1962 with a gift from the Kennedy family, the center promotes collaborative research in the causes, prevention and treatment of mental retardation and developmental disabilities.

The grant, called a P30, expands the community of scientists in the Chicago area committed to brain research, behavioral research, and the diagnosis of individuals with afflictions leading to mental retardation and disabilities.

For example, the center's brain malformation study group has identified two genes associated with abnormalities of the corpus callosum, conditions in which the bundle of nerve fibers that connect the brain's two hemispheres is missing or incomplete.

Divided among three primary cores, research at the Kennedy Center focuses on neuroscience, model organisms, and genomics and biostatistics, with the aim of better understanding the causes of retarded development and behavioral disabilities.

Kennedy Center resources support the work of 47 biological and social scientists from the University of Chicago, Northwestern University and the University of Illinois at Chicago, who work closely with the center's staff. The center also hosts bi-annual symposia. Last January, the first symposium focused on autism and autism genetics.

"The center provides a focus for multiple investigators to come together for a common interest," said Nancy Schwartz, PhD, director of the Kennedy Center and professor of pediatrics and biochemistry and molecular biology. "We offer new ways of looking at complex behavioral disorders, new ways of analyzing multiple genes at the same time.

"The borders that used to divide science are so much more blurred," she said. "You have to attack problems with a variety of techniques, employing broad working knowledge gained through collaborations. That's the only way science moves forward."

Center physicians and scientists are making strides in understanding and treating the causes of autism, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, Alzheimer's disease, brain malformation, epilepsy, neurodegenerative diseases, sudden infant death syndrome, and brain injury.

"This work will be greatly enhanced through the facility infrastructure and cross-institutional interaction fostered by the new P30 grant," Schwartz said. "As physicians and scientists can identify a defective gene associated with a disorder, they then can study how it exerts its effect, and attempt to intervene, ideally finding a treatment."

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