The Adult Psychiatry Residency Program at Vanderbilt University is dedicated to developing the research skills of any resident interested in an academic career.

Residents will have the opportunity to work with investigators in all departments at Vanderbilt University including:

Ongoing research in schizophrenia, addictions, mood disorders and brain imaging are available to interested residents as part of our research focus in the PGY3 and PGY4 years. Opportunities also exist to begin work at Vanderbilt University’s Master’s of Public Health program or the Master of Science in Clinical Investigation program.

Residents interested in continuing their research careers can pursue this interest through one of our fellowships in Neuroimaging, Addictions, Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, and Psychosomatic Medicine.

Residency candidates who are interested in learning more about research opportunities at Vanderbilt’s Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences should contact Ron Cowan, MD PhD.

As part of the interview process, for those interested in pursuing a research emphasis, we will plan a second day to allow the opportunity to meet with faculty who would potentially serve as research mentors.


Research Opportunities

Benningfield Lab

The Benningfield lab uses functional MRI to examine neurobiological factors related to vulnerability for addiction including impulsivity, risk taking and reward processing. Dr. Benningfield is a Child Psychiatrist whose primary interest lies in early intervention and prevention of mental illness including substance use disorders. The current focus of the work in her lab examines ADHD as a risk factor for substance use disorders. Impulsivity and risk taking are both determinants and consequences of persistent substance use and are core features of ADHD. Reward mechanisms are fundamental to facilitating the learning processes that mediate drug dependence. Understanding the neurobiology related to reward processing, impulsivity, and risk taking in adolescents and how these factors relate to one another is essential for informing prevention and treatment of substance use disorders.

Potential projects

  1. Functional imaging of temporal discounting in 10 to 14 year old children with and without ADHD
  2. Longitudinal  assessment of temporal discounting in 10 to 14 year old children with and without ADHD
  3. Structural imaging of nucleus accumbens in youth with and without ADHD

Blackford Lab

The research focus of the Blackford Lab is to better understand the genetic and neural substrates of individual differences in emotional reactivity and regulation. We study a group at high-risk for developing anxiety and depression, individuals with an inhibited temperament, as a model for understanding heightened emotional reactivity and deficits in emotion regulation. We use a combination of genetics, imaging, and behavioral methods in order to study inhibited temperament across multiple levels from genetics to brain to behavioral features. Our long term goals are to characterize the neurocircuitry associated with risk for anxiety and depression and use these discoveries to develop new prevention and intervention strategies for high-risk children and develop new treatments for anxiety and depression.

Potential projects

  1. fMRI studies of anticipatory processing in children and adults
  2. Genetics of anxiety vulnerability
  3. Longitudinal assessment of anxiety in high-risk children

Cascio Lab: Autism Sensory and Repetitive Behavior Research

The Cascio Lab utilizes sensory assessment both for children and adults with autism spectrum disorders (ASD), and combines these behavioral tests with neuroimaging (fMRI, DTI) and neurophysiology (event-related potentials) to learn about the neural basis of sensory and repetitive behaviors in ASD.  Within the array of sensory modalities, we focus most heavily on proximal and internal senses such as touch, proprioception, and interoception, which have received far less research attention than distal senses (vision and hearing). Our current projects center on the affective nature of sensory and repetitive behaviors in ASD, investigating limbic and other neural systems that process stimulus salience.

Potential projects

  1. fMRI study of subclinical ASD and schizotypy traits in association with the rubber hand illusion (integration of synchronous tactile and visual input to modify proprioception), empathy, and interoception
  2. Somatosensory event-related potentials and their relation to tactile response patterns in ASD
  3. Investigation of temporal binding window in the rubber hand illusion
  4. Diffusion tensor imaging (DTI) study of sensory and limbic tracts and their relation to sensory response patterns in ASD

Corbett Lab: Social Emotional Neuroscience Endocrinology (SENSE)

Social Emotional Neuroscience Endocrinology (SENSE) Lab conducts research evaluating the social functioning and stress profile of children with and without autism spectrum disorders (ASD) using neuropsychological, behavioral and imaging techniques. Our studies incorporate ecologically valid paradigms that utilize typically developing peers engaging with research participants under natural social situations (e.g., playing on playgrounds and computer games).

Potential projects

  1. ASSESSMENTS include diagnostic and neuropsychological assessments of research participants that are 7-12 (child) or 13-17 years (adolescent) years of age with and without autism spectrum disorders (ASD). Tasks include observation of assessments, scoring protocols, data entry and preparation of research files and study materials.
  2. PEER INTERACTION STUDY involves the evaluation of biobehavioral stress and social interactions with peers on a playground. Tasks include observation, interacting with research participants before and after playground, assisting with salivary collection, and administration of study questionnaires.
  3. BEHAVIORAL Coding involves detailed coding using NOLDUS software to code social variables based on our validated peer interaction paradigm.  Tasks include learning the coding paradigm, obtaining inter-rater reliability, and scoring videos of participants.
  4. ERP STUDY (Event Related Potential) study involves two tasks in which children with and without ASD engage in social perception tasks using facial and object stimuli. Tasks include observation and sitting with participants during ERP to maintain attention, keep them on task, and document behavior during protocol.
  5. fMRI STUDY involves two social paradigms that assess the neural correlates of social cooperation and completion.  Tasks include assisting participant practice in mock MRI and observing actual scan procedures.

Cowan Lab

The Cowan Lab’s neuroimaging research program examines neural mechanisms and neural consequences of drug abuse and obesity. The lab applies multimodal approaches, including behavior, genetics, and neurophysiology to broadly understand reward system dysregulation across addictive disorders. Our work attempts to synthesize information from the molecular level to the societal level to forge a greater understanding of the neural basis of and improve treatments for addictions and obesity.

Potential Projects

  1. Genetic associations of structural brain effects in MDMA/ecstasy users
  2. Neural basis of altered cortical excitability in MDMA/ecstasy users—focus on serotonin in cortical function
  3. Neurobiology of food cue responding in child obesity
  4. Pain processing in aging and Alzheimer’s dementia (with Dr. Monroe’s lab—we are applying for grants using the multiple PI mechanism)

Deutch Lab

The research efforts in The Deutch Lab focus (if that is the appropriate verb) on five different areas. These are: 1) dendritic remodeling in schizophrenia (prefrontal cortex) and Parkinson’s Disease striatum); 2) heterogeneity of pyramidal cells; 3) the role of the claustrum in attentional allocation; 4) pathophysiology of depression and psychosis in Parkinson’s Disease; 5) prefrontal cortical function and dysfunction in schizophrenia and Parkinson’s disease.  Underlying these five areas is a common theme of derangements of distributed anatomical systems in neuropsychiatric disorders.

Potential projects

  1. Quantitative assessment of serotonergic axon subtypes in the cortex in depression in Parkinson’s Disease
  2. Survey of the functional attributes of the intralaminar thalamostriatal neurons
  3. Development and maintenance of organotypic slide co-cultures (prefrontal cortex, striatum, nucleus accumbens, globus pallidus, basolateral amygdala, mediodorsal thalamus, post intralaminar thalamus, ventral tegmental area, substantia nigra, entorhinal cortex, and pancreas)

Heckers Lab: Vanderbilt Psychotic Disorders Program

The Vanderbilt Psychotic Disorders Program is dedicated to a better understanding of psychotic disorders.  We take care of patients, teach and conduct research.  The clinical programs at Vanderbilt Psychiatric Hospital (VPH) include an inpatient unit for acutely ill patients, a partial hospitalization program and outpatient clinics. We focus on the diagnosis and treatment of patients in the early stage of a psychotic disorder.  We train medical students and resident physicians at Vanderbilt University and provide postgraduate education for mental health professionals with an interest in psychotic disorders.  Our research programs focus on the diagnosis and the neural basis of psychotic disorders.  We are interested in the classification of schizophrenia, schizoaffective disorder and psychotic bipolar disorder. We aim to improve the reliability and validity of the available diagnoses and work towards a more personalized approach in the diagnosis and treatment of psychotic disorders.

Potential projects

  1. The diagnosis of schizoaffective disorder
  2. Clinical features of catatonia in medical and psychiatric patients

Patel Lab

The goal of The Patel Lab research is to investigate the role of endocannabinoid (eCB) signaling in the pathophysiology of psychiatric disorders including depression, anxiety disorders, and substance abuse. Our programs focus is on understanding the developmental, molecular, and synaptic adaptations in eCB signaling that occur in animal models of psychiatric disease, and evaluation of novel eCB modulating compounds using preclinical models. Moreover, we have a longitudinal interest in investigating fundamental molecular mechanisms regulating eCB signaling in the CNS. We utilize a variety of convergent techniques including analytical neurochemistry, molecular biology, electrophysiology, and animal behavior to study the role of neuronal eCB signaling in CNS function relevant to neuropsychiatric disorders.

Medical students and residents interested in contributing to our research could be involved in:Understanding the role of COX-2 oxidative metabolites of eCBs on synaptic signaling in the amygdala

Potential Projects

  1. Conducting behavioral studies to validate the use of eCB augmenting agents for the treatment of psychiatric disorders using animal models
  2. Elucidating the role of eCBs in the regulation of behavioral and neuroendocrine responses to stress exposure

Taylor Lab: The Laboratory of Affective and Cognitive Imaging

The Taylor Lab's line of research focuses on neurobiological factors contributing to the development and persistence of depression.  We use a variety of clinical, cognitive, neuroimaging, and genetic methods to examine factors predisposing individuals to depression or factors that may be predictive of response to antidepressant treatment.  Although our research examines depression across the adult lifespan, we have a particular focus on depression occurring in elderly adults.  In particular, a longstanding focus of the lab is the contribution of vascular disease to the development of depression in older adults.  Projects in development will work to link novel treatment strategies not only to clinical measures but also relevant imaging biomarkers.

Potential Projects:

  1. Genes and alterations in brain structure and function in depression: This project examines adults between ages of 20 and 50 years who do and do not have diagnoses of current depression.  Participants complete clinical and cognitive assessments, neuroimaging, and provide a sample for genetic analyses.  This study is examining effects of genetic variation in the serotonergic and dopaminergic systems on neural structure and function, and how these effects are moderated by the presence of depression or early life stressors.
  2. Effects of cerebral perfusion and its reversal on late-life depression: This project continues past work examining the influence of vascular disease on late-life depression.  We will examine how regional differences in brain perfusion, measured using MRI arterial spin labeling, predicts response to commonly used antidepressants.  Additionally, we will examine if treatment with selective cardiovascular drugs may improve brain perfusion, and if this has beneficial effects on depression and cognitive outcomes in this population.
  3. Treatment and longitudinal outcomes of latle-life depression: Using data gathered through collaborations at Duke University and Washington University, this project allows for secondary data analyses examining the phenomenology and course of late-life depression.  Data from these studies include clinical assessments, neuropsychological data, neuroimaging measures, and genetic analyses.  This provides an opportunity to learn about late-life depression and issues in clinical research while working on a secondary data analysis for presentation and publication.

Woodward Lab

The Woodward Lab is dedicated to understanding the etiology and treatment of schizophrenia and related psychotic disorders.  We use a variety of cutting-edge neuroimaging technologies and neuropsychological testing to investigate the neural basis of schizophrenia and other psychotic disorders.  My lab is especially interested in how key brain networks are affected in psychosis and how dysfunction of these networks is related to the clinical symptoms of psychosis, especially cognitive impairment.  Specific projects related to this area of research include:

Potential projects

Functional connectivity of the brain in psychosis

  1. Neural and cognitive basis of processing speed impairment in psychosis
  2. Structural and functional brain correlates of neuropsychological impairment in psychosis
  3. Structural and functional brain correlates of psychosis symptom dimensions

In addition to psychosis, my lab is also interested in the neural basis of personality traits and cognitive functions relevant to psychosis. 

Specific projects related to this area of research include:

  1. Structural brain correlates of schizotypal personality traits in healthy subjects and individuals with a psychotic disorder.
  2. Relationship between dopamine signaling and normal variation in cognitive functioning