RDoC Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ)
The RDoC Framework
- What is RDoC?
RDoC is a research framework for investigating mental disorders. It integrates many levels of information (from genomics and circuits to behavior and self-reports) in order to explore basic dimensions of functioning that span the full range of human behavior from normal to abnormal. For more information, visit the About RDoC page.
- Why was RDoC created?
RDoC was created to advance understanding of mental disorders. Currently, the diagnosis of mental disorders is based on clinical observation—identifying symptoms that tend to cluster together. However, the way that mental disorders are defined in the present diagnostic system does not incorporate current information from integrative neuroscience research, and thus is not optimal for making scientific gains through neuroscience approaches. It is difficult to deconstruct clusters of complex behaviors and attempt to link these to neurobiological systems.
Many mental disorders may be considered as falling along multiple dimensions (e.g., cognition, mood, social interactions), with traits that exist on a continuum ranging from normal to extreme. Co-occurrence of multiple mental disorders might reflect different patterns of symptoms that result from shared risk factors and perhaps the same shared disease processes.
RDoC was launched precisely for this reason – to encourage and promote studies that use dimensional approaches and multidisciplinary methods to understand human behavior, and what happens when it results in mental illness. To learn more, visit the About RDoC page.
- What are the major components of the RDoC framework?
First, scientists now recognize that most psychopathology has its roots in childhood or adolescence, so the study of developmental trajectories is strongly encouraged in RDoC. Second, the framework also emphasizes research on environmental influences (such as families, social networks, and physical settings) whose effects vary depending on when in development they occur. The two-dimensional RDoC matrix is set within these critical contexts, and includes several broad functional domains (such as cognitive processes or reward systems) containing more specific dimensional constructs (for example, working memory and attention as components of cognition). Each construct is jointly defined by data about its behavioral or cognitive characteristics and about the neural system that implements the function. Finally, the framework calls for constructs to be studied across multiple units of analysis, from genes to circuits to behavior or self-reports, to provide an integrative understanding of its functioning.
- What are the goals of RDoC?
The immediate goals of RDoC are to better understand mental disorders by focusing on mechanisms, components, and processes that make up human behavior, and what happens when they go awry.
The long-term goals of RDoC are to help improve diagnosis and shed light on potential new treatments for mental disorders.
- What is the relationship between RDoC and diagnostic systems?
In contrast to existing diagnostic guidelines, which are used for clinical purposes, RDoC is a research framework meant for supporting biobehavioral approaches for studying mental disorders. It is not for diagnosing mental disorders or for clinical practice. Studies that use the RDoC framework could lead to more knowledge of the mechanisms and processes in mental health and mental disorders. This information could help inform future diagnostic criteria.
Development of—and Updates to—the RDoC Framework
- How was the framework developed?
The framework was developed in a multistep process. Beginning in 2009, an internal NIMH working group devoted over a year to specifying the components of the overall framework and the initial functional domains. Decisions regarding specific constructs and elements for the units of analysis were driven by current data in behavioral neuroscience, psychopathology, and other literatures, as determined in a series of workshops from 2010 to 2012 with experts from many scientific and methodological areas.
- How are changes to the framework made?
RDoC is a dynamic research framework that has continued to evolve to incorporate the latest findings from the research community. The task of making changes to the framework is coordinated by a steering group of scientific experts comprising the Changes to the Matrix (CMAT) committee. The extent of the evaluation process depends upon the scope of the proposed change, with additional scientists recruited as needed to provide appropriate expertise. Decisions regarding proposed changes are submitted in a report to the NIMH Advisory Council (NAMHC) for its consideration and approval.
Features of RDoC
- What are the principles of RDoC research?
There are many different ways to design studies that are consistent with the RDoC approach and there is no single “correct” way to do RDoC research. In general, RDoC-informed research is guided by the following principles:
- Start with what is known about normal neurobehavioral processes. This doesn’t mean that every RDoC-informed study must include a measure of brain activity but research hypotheses should be informed by and consistent with what is known about normal brain and behavioral functions.
- Focus on specific clinical problems, instead of heterogeneous diagnoses. In RDoC research, the focus of study should be on understanding clinical problems that occur within or across diagnostic boundaries rather than diagnoses based on collections of symptoms.
- Assume dimensionality. The RDoC approach is based on an assumption that there are neurobehavioral continuities from normal to abnormal across various aspects of psychopathology. It also assumes that neurobehavioral processes can and do cut across disorders. This stance does not preclude classifications, groupings, or clusters but these should be based on empirically-detected, naturally-occurring discontinuities or empirically-derived cut-points (e.g., for the purposes of clinical decisions regarding treatment or enhanced clinical monitoring).
- Be integrative. The RDoC framework is meant to encourage research that integrates data across multiple units of analysis, such that different types of data can inform and constrain each other.
- Assume interactions among constructs. Just as the brain is densely and dynamically integrated, RDoC constructs interact with each other and studies examining these relationships are encouraged.
- How are environment and development incorporated in the framework?
Development and environment have always been crucial components of the RDoC framework and important aspects of mental health research. Understanding developmental trajectories across various phases of the life span represents a critical consideration that is implicit to the RDoC framework and might be considered as a third dimension in the matrix. In addition, environmental influences may be considered as another critical element of the RDoC matrix. The social and physical environment comprises sources of both risk and protection for many different disorders occurring at all points along the life span, and methods for studying phenomena such as gene expression, neural plasticity, and various types of learning are rapidly advancing.
To learn more, Visit the RDoC Development and Environmental Aspects page.
- What are the main elements of the RDoC matrix?
The RDoC Matrix is depicted by rows and columns, where the rows of the matrix represent specific dimensions of function (Domains and Constructs) and the columns represent different kinds of observations for study (Units of Analysis). Domains represent groupings of functions, reflecting contemporary knowledge about major systems of cognition, motivation, and social behavior. Each domain is further subdivided into Constructs and Subconstructs which embody specified functional dimensions of behavior. Finally, the domains and constructs are characterized in the aggregate by the Units of Analysis, to demonstrate the biological and psychological components that correspond to certain behaviors. In the cells of the matrix are specific elements that serve as exemplars which are empirically associated with the construct and the corresponding unit of analysis.
The matrix and its elements have always been used as examples, and not prescription, with the understanding that it is an evolving knowledge base. We have a dedicated workgroup who oversees changes and additions that are made to the matrix.
To learn more, visit the Definitions of the RDoC Domains and Constructs page.
Research Using the RDoC Framework
- What type of research fits into the RDoC framework?
Many different types of research fit into the RDoC framework, given its overarching principle of encouraging research on dimensional constructs that cut across disorders, relate to heterogeneity within disorders, and span the health to illness continuum. Typical RDoC studies integrate multiple units of analysis as applied to transdiagnostic samples, particularly with an emphasis on computational approaches; however, there are no rigid criteria to define what is an “RDoC study” or what methods must be used.
To learn more, visit the Developing an RDoC Study page.
- What is the role of RDoC-related research in the NIMH grant portfolio?
Apart from RDoC-focused funding opportunity announcements, there is not a unique or separate funding stream for RDoC-focused projects. There are several separate divisions and offices in the Extramural research program at NIMH, and RDoC-focused grants are distributed through all of these as determined by the topic. Grants in all divisions are funded based on NIMH research priorities and as deemed to be high quality science that will help achieve the mission of NIMH. Research grant applications that focus on RDoC are handled the same way and are funded through the same divisions, under the same priorities, through which all NIMH research is funded.
Given RDoC’s emphasis on translating basic research to psychopathology, most of the funded projects that have an RDoC focus are administered through the Division of Translational Research (DTR). Within DTR, about half of the grants take an RDoC approach to mental health research. A complete list of grants funded by NIMH can be accessed at NIH RePORTER.
- What is the role of animal studies in RDoC research?
Animal studies and other basic research are important for laying the foundation and guiding the translational and clinical work of RDoC research. While RDoC formally focuses on translational research with human subjects with a range of psychopathology, NIMH encourages and supports basic and animal research that will ultimately inform RDoC-focused research. See Simmons & Quinn (2014) for a thorough discussion of this topic.
- How can RDoC be used in clinical trials?
One of main premises of RDoC is that treatments will be more effective if the heterogeneity within and amongst disorders is reduced. An RDoC approach can help to define empirically-based patient groups to be enrolled in clinical trials to test new interventions or to test hypotheses about which individuals are most likely to benefit from existing treatments. Thus, NIMH supports both clinical trials that use traditional diagnostic groups, and the development of novel interventions that focus on operationally-defined, empirically-supported functional domains or symptom(s) of mental disorders.
- Can I use existing datasets for RDoC research?
Yes, we encourage the use of existing data sets, combined or analyzed in new ways to look at more dimensional aspects of psychopathology. We have some funding announcements focused precisely on this type of work. Another potential source for existing data is the NIMH Data Archive (NDA), which houses harmonized biological and behavioral data contributed by researchers.
- How do I apply for RDoC-related grants?
NIMH periodically issues RDoC-specific funding opportunities, but RDoC principles can be incorporated into grant proposals submitted under any funding opportunity announcement. It isn’t necessary for RDoC-focused applications to be only be submitted under funding announcements that specifically solicit RDoC applications.
To learn more about applying for NIMH grants, visit the NIMH funding page.
- What current RDoC-related funding opportunities are available?
Information about funding opportunities specifically focused on RDoC can be found on the RDoC funding opportunities page.
- Are RDoC-related grants reviewed at special study sections?
Study section assignment varies according to the type of application and funding announcement under which the application is submitted. RDoC-related grants submitted under parent NIH funding announcements are assigned to regular study sections according to the topic of the proposal. Applications submitted under RDoC-specific funding announcements might be reviewed by a special study section convened for a specific announcement or by existing regular study sections. Applicants should check the Review and Selection Process section of the funding announcement under which they are applying for details about the review process or speak with your program officer.
- Can I include DSM disorder categories in my grant application to NIMH?
Yes, you can include diagnostic categories in your grant application to NIMH. NIMH continues to fund clinical research grants focused on DSM disorders. If the aims of a translational project focus on a DSM-defined disorder, then it is important to address how heterogeneity within the disorder will be addressed.
For investigators proposing an RDoC-informed study, there is no prohibition on using standard diagnostic categories as eligibility criteria. For some studies, it will make sense to enroll individuals who meet criteria for a diagnosis or a cluster of diagnoses and then use a dimensional approach to test RDoC-informed hypotheses. However, it is important to consider whether it is appropriate to also enroll individuals with symptoms that are mild-to-moderate in severity and would not meet diagnostic criteria in order to fully explore the relevant dimensions. Another approach is to establish eligibility criteria that are independent of diagnosis and then use existing diagnostic criteria to characterize the participants, even if the hypotheses are not focused on the diagnoses.
- Is all NIMH research RDoC research?
No. See NIH RePORTER for the range of research supported by NIMH.