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April / 2019

David R. Hessl, PhD, MIND Institute, University of California, Davis

In 2012, The John Merck Fund awarded a $1 million, four-year grant to the University of California, Davis, for Principal Investigator David Hessl’s research project, “Cognitive Training for Fragile X Syndrome.”

Fragile X syndrome (FXS) is the most common inherited cause of autism.  Prevalence estimates are 1 in 4,000 to 8,000.  The phenotype associated with FXS includes both behavioral and cognitive deficits in addition to physical features.  The behavioral phenotype typically includes attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder, anxiety and intermittent aggression, which can cause significant difficulties for families.  Individuals with Fragile X Syndrome demonstrate profound executive function deficits that interfere with learning, socialization, and emotion regulation.

Dr. Hessl’s study, the first non-pharmacological controlled trial for FXS, evaluated the efficacy of Cogmed, a cognitive training program that enhances working memory and executive function.  The study provided evidence that children and adolescents with FXS can engage and make progress in an intensive web-based working memory training program, over a period of 5-6 weeks.  The primary hypothesis that participants completing the publicly available adaptive training versions of the program will make significantly greater gains in standardized measures of working memory than those completing a non-adaptive “control” version was not confirmed.  However, both groups improved on a variety of metrics.  The John Merck Fund has made an additional $181,500 grant to enable Dr. Hessl to mine data from the original study to glean more insight about what factors contribute to improved working memory and executive function in study participants.

The Journal of Neurodevelopmental Disorders published a paper on Dr. Hessl’s research.

JMF’s grant to Dr. Hessl is part of our Developmental Disabilities Program’s Translational Research Program – supporting research with the potential for near-term positive impact on people with developmental disabilities and their families.