Infancy

Neurodevelopmental effects of fetal alcohol exposure (CIFASD)

Principal Investigator:

Jeff Wozniak, Ph.D., L.P. (Department of Psychiatry)

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Collaborators:

Bryon Mueller, Ph.D. (Psychiatry), Christopher Boys, Ph.D. (Department of Pediatrics), Kelvin Lim, M.D. (Department of Psychiatry)

Abstract:

The long-term aims of this research are to understand the neurobiological abnormalities that underlie cognitive and behavioral deficits in children with prenatal alcohol exposure. Prior research has clearly demonstrated that children with Fetal Alcohol Syndrome (FAS) have characteristic abnormalities in both the structure and function of their brains. Individuals with FAS have lower intellectual functioning, attention deficits, problems with memory/learning, and difficulties with organization/planning. Much less is known about brain structure and function in children who have a less severe diagnosis within the category of Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder (FASD). This is the diagnostic term applied to those who have been exposed to alcohol prenatally and show some cognitive deficits but do not show all of the classic physical features of FAS (such as delayed growth and unusual facial features). We will use Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) and neurocognitive tests to assess brain abnormalities in children with FASD compared to control participants.

Perinatal Stroke: Understanding Brain Reorganization through Infant Neuroimaging and Neuromodulation

Principal Investigator:

Bernadette Gillick, PhD, MSPT, PT (Department of Rehabilitation Medicine)

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Collaborators:

Michael Georgieff, MD (Department of Neonatology), Raghavendra Rao, MD (Department of Neonatology)

Abstract:

The purpose of this study is to use MRI/DTI TMS and electroencephalography (EEG) to comprehensively examine both the CST integrity and cortical excitability in infants following perinatal stroke, and to identify association with sensorimotor outcome as evaluated by clinical behavioral assessments of infants. The results of this study will provide fundamental information as to the feasibility and safety of applying non-sedative/natural sleeping MRI/DTI scanning and TMS in infants. This study will also investigate the relationship between modeled electric field and measured motor threshold across hemispheres.  This may help identify anatomical markers that can predict electric field strength and thus could be used for dosing considerations for future neuromodulation interventions. Additionally, sensory stimulation evoked event related potential amplitude will be compared between infants with stroke and typical development to identify whether infants with stroke demonstrate early sensory processing differences compared to typically developing peers.

Quantifying eye tracking and EEG metrics of social perception during infancy

Principal Investigator:

Charisse Pickron, PhD (Institute of Child Development)

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Collaborators:

Jed Elison, PhD (Institute of Child Development)

Abstract:

The healthy development of key neurocognitive functions, such as face recognition and social cognitive function, is essential for learning to navigate one’s environment. Individual differences in these functions predict important developmental outcomes including successful social communication skills, school readiness, and interpersonal relationships. Several recent investigations have focused on understanding how early perceptual experience influences the behavioral and neural specificity of face processing during the first year of life. Research in this area has revealed several perceptual biases arising within the first year of life, including the other-race effect. These findings indicate that infants’ ability to readily differentiate among face identities is narrowed to the race and gender groups that they have the most experience with.

This indicates that being able to attend to and possibly learn from faces is influenced by familiarity with facial features such as race and gender. Attentional biases for social information may be relevant to these changes in face processing capabilities. The ability to characterize the microarchitecture of looking patterns and neural activity responses during passive viewing of social and non-social stimuli has markedly advanced the study of infant cognition and social cognition.

To date, very few studies have recorded electrical brain activity while simultaneously recording looking patterns in developmental populations. Thus more research is needed to better characterize the relation between looking patterns and electrical responses measured from the brain. Together these methods will provide clearer characterization of changes in infants’ attentional and perceptual capabilities during the first years of life. Additionally, the current project will provide evidence for potential underlying neural and attentional mechanisms which drive changes in social information processing during the first year of life.

Screening for profiles of risk associated with ASD and other emerging atypical phenotypes

Principal Investigator:

Jed Elison, PhD (Institute of Child Development)

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Collaborators:

Suma Jacob, MD, PhD (Department of Psychiatry), Amy Esler, PhD, LP (Department of Pediatrics), Jason Wolff, PhD (Department of Educational Psychology)

Abstract:

There is a great need for improved screening approaches and improved implementation of screening procedures to identify children who will need early intervention for ASD. New screening approaches are needed to capture the heterogeneity of the disorder(s), which includes identifying children who are likely to access services in the community even though they may not meet strict research criteria for an autism spectrum diagnosis.

In the current application, we propose to test a new screening approach that we refer to as pheno-screening.  We ask parents to complete online versions of standardized questionnaires that are designed to capture individual differences in highly dimensional traits relevant to the early emergence of clinically impairing behaviors that constitute ASD. We use data driven approaches to derive clusters or latent classes of children that represent a continuum of risk. Next, based on a given cluster’s profile, we invite children into the laboratory for direct phenotypic assessment that also includes measurement of biomarkers hypothesized to help us parse the heterogeneity of behavioral profiles encapsulated by an ASD diagnosis.  Improved screening procedures promise to advance early identification, and improved characterization of biomarkers associated with risk promises to advance new interventions designed to target specific mechanisms associated with behavioral symptomatology.

Toddler and Parent Play Study

Principal Investigator:

Megan Gunnar, PhD (Institute of Child Development)

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Collaborators:

Emily Reilly, PhD candidate (Institute of Child Development)

Abstract:

Sensitive caregiving in the first years of life helps children manage their own emotions and arousal, promoting healthy development and a decreased risk of psychopathology-related symptoms later in childhood. This sensitive care can be derailed by parent trauma histories and depression, which is why sensitivity has become a target of many parenting interventions. Still, these interventions are not successful with some parents, challenging researchers to instead focus on the capacities necessary for sensitive responding. Compassion, we argue, is a principal capacity for sensitivity.

Compassion involves both an understanding of another’s distress and the motivation to act on this understanding to help alleviate their distress — abilities necessary to enact a sensitive response to a child. Encouragingly, compassion is malleable and can be induced with loving kindness meditations, which involve sending thoughts of loving kindness to yourself and a series of people. Biological measures, such as respiratory sinus arrhythmia (RSA), can be used to capture compassionate responding because another’s distress activates our physiological arousal. Employing heart rate variability methods provides an opportunity to measure effects of an LKM intervention at the biological level. Intervening to improve sensitivity by targeting compassion with an LKM could provide a cost-effective, efficient, and possibly more successful method for empowering parents to respond sensitively to their child, thereby preventing the development of mental illness in the next generation. However, it is first necessary to ensure the association between compassion and sensitivity.

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