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M. D. Anderson Postdoctoral Fellow Wins Prize for Neurofibromatosis Research

M. D. Anderson Postdoctoral Fellow Wins Prize for Neurofibromatosis Research
M. D. Anderson News Release 05/23/01

A postdoctoral fellow’s work at The University of Texas M. D. Anderson Cancer Center seeks to improve the lives of children and adolescents with neurofibromatosis and learning disabilities, specifically reading disabilities.

Dr. Rebecca Billingsley has been awarded the National Neurofibromatosis Foundation Research Prize for her research proposal. She is investigating phonological and visual-spatial processing deficits in young patients with neurofibromatosis, a genetic disorder associated with learning disabilities. Deficiencies in analyzing the sounds of words, or phonological processing, are often associated with reading impairment. Phonological deficits and visual-spatial deficits are common in the neurofibromatosis population.

Dr. Billingsley’s proposal, which is already in practice in the Division of Pediatrics at
M. D. Anderson, uses a relatively new technology for measuring brain activity called fMRI. The fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging) uses an MRI technique to examine blood flow in the brain during specific types of mental activity.

“This project allows us to look at actual function of certain regions of the brain using fMRI while the young participant is in the scanner doing cognitive tasks such as reading new words,” she said. “We look at what is going on in the brain and how that differs from healthy age-matched participants.”

Prior studies have looked into unusual bright images that appear on MRI in the brain of children with neurofibromatosis, but these images have not been well correlated with their cognitive deficits, Dr. Billingsley said.

 “Dr. Billingsley’s award is not only a recognition of her outstanding individual achievements, but of M. D. Anderson’s commitment to research in this area,” said Dr. Bartlett D. Moore, III, associate professor of clinical pediatrics and research director of the Neurofibromatosis Clinic. “Research like Dr. Billingsley’s can have a direct impact on patients with neurofibromatosis by helping us to understand why they have learning difficulties and suggesting ways to remediate them.” 

Often mistaken for Elephant Man’s disease, neurofibromatosis is a set of genetic disorders that causes tumors to grow along various types of nerves and can affect the development of non-nervous tissues such as bones and skin. This disorder causes tumors to grow anywhere on or in the body, and must be monitored for the constant threat of malignancy.

More prevalent than Cystic Fibrosis, Huntington’s Disease and Tay Sachs disease combined, neurofibromatosis is the most common neurological disorder caused by a single gene. M. D. Anderson has been caring for young patients with neurofibromatosis since 1990 when it established the first clinic dedicated to the disease in Texas. Currently working with approximately 300 children, adolescents and young adults, the Neurofibromatosis Clinic at M. D. Anderson diagnoses and manages the many complications of neurofibromatosis while helping patients cope with learning disabilities and psychosocial issues.

According to Dr. Moore, because the medical complications of neurofibromatosis increase in frequency and severity as the patient ages, future plans at M. D. Anderson include a clinic for adult patients with the disorder. To learn more about neurofibromatosis, visit the M. D. Anderson Web site at


© 2015 The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center