Dr. Virginia Chu awarded $2.1 million federal grant to support somatosensory research in young children

A VCU Occupational Therapy faculty member was awarded a $2.1 million federal grant to support her research into somatosensory processing — sensation and touch — in children.

Virginia ChuVirginia W. Chu, Ph.D., OTR/L, an assistant professor in the department, received the R01 grant award from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) in May. The award is one of the largest the department has received in its 81-year history.

“Somatosensory processing, which encompasses proprioception and tactile processing, forms the bedrock of how your central nervous system understands the body's position in three-dimensional space,” says Chu. “This fundamental understanding profoundly influences motor coordination, motor learning, and the integration of multisensory information, but there is no standard of assessment for very young children.”

If this project is successful, Chu says, VCU will be the first to objectively measure force perception in children under the age of four, “which is a crucial time in which a considerable amount of motor development takes place.”

The NIH’s R01 grant is a cornerstone of biomedical and behavioral research funding in the U.S. The highly competitive and prestigious grant mechanism plays a pivotal role in advancing scientific discovery, innovation, and knowledge in various fields, ranging from basic sciences to clinical research. 

Chu’s research is supported by co-investigators James Thomas, Ph.D., a professor in the Department of Physical Therapy at the College of Health Professions, and Oliver Rolin, M.D., Ph.D, professor in the Department of Physical Health & Rehabilitation at the School of Medicine. Robert Perera, Ph.D., associate professor in the School of Medicine’s Department of Biostatistics, is serving as statistician. 

Chu’s studies involve using typical childhood activities, such as playing with stickers and drawing with specially-engineered crayons, to measure a child’s ability to process force and position information. “In early childhood development, the impact of delayed or atypical somatosensory processing cannot be underestimated, particularly in the critical age range of birth to 7 years,” she says. 

Occupational Therapist and Virginia Chu's son

Each year, more than 4 million children are diagnosed with developmental dyspraxia or developmental coordination disorder (DCD), conditions characterized by challenges in motor planning and coordination. Evidence suggests that these conditions are connected to deficits in somatosensory function, but Chu’s research hypothesizes that many of these deficits remain hidden due to lack of reliable assessment tools for young children.

“We are focusing our research on children born prematurely, as this is a population that often experiences mild to moderate motor delay,” says Chu. “We suspect these delays might arise from unique sensory experiences during their early developmental stages, and we want to develop effective means of assessing those challenges.”

Beyond the development of these assessments, Chu’s research supported by the R01 grant will investigate a secondary objective: to gauge whether these assessments can predict future sensorimotor development. 

“This approach holds immense promise for understanding the intricacies of child development and paving the way for more targeted interventions, and I’m honored to have received the NIH grant to support this research,” she says.

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