Research Projects

 

Developmental Changes in the Reconfiguration of Brain Networks and Their Association with Psychiatric Traits During Adolescence

Research Project Leader: Gaelle E. Doucet, Ph.D.

Gaelle Doucet

Dr. Doucet received her Ph.D. in Cognitive Neuroscience from the University of Caen-Basse Normandie in France in 2010. From 2010 to 2017, she did two postdoctoral fellowships focusing on the impact of neurological and neuropsychiatric disorders on brain architecture. Starting in 2017, she became an assistant professor in psychiatry at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai (New York, NY). Since 2020, she has been the Director of the Brain Architecture, Imaging and Cognition (BrAIC) Lab, at Boys Town. Her work involves the investigation of brain architecture and its relation to cognition in health and disease and she has developed expertise in the use of resting-state fMRI to characterize the brain’s functional organization.

Study Overview

Adolescence is a key period for neural changes, including maturation of the brain's cognitive networks. This period is also associated with increased vulnerability to psychopathology. The aim of this application is to combine brain functional imaging data with cognitive and behavioral information to provide an integrative framework that quantifies the dynamic reconfiguration of the brain connectome across cognitive states from adolescence to adulthood and improve our understanding of the link between the brain functional connectome and psychopathology, in adolescents.

Specific Aims

  • (Aim 1) Identify developmental changes in the spatial reconfiguration of brain networks by cognitive states. We will collect data during both resting-state and task-based fMRI to identify the major cognitive networks and assess their spatial reconfiguration across the distinct cognitive states.
  •  (Aim 2) Quantify developmental alterations in the functional interactions across networks and cognitive states. We will quantify the functional interactions among the major brain networks during different cognitive states. We will identify how functional reconfiguration is impacted by age and pubertal stage.
  • (Aim 3) Determine the power of an integrative brain framework to predict psychiatric traits in adolescents. We will use multivariate analyses to determine the degree to which the brain network organization measures are associated with psychiatric traits during adolescence. We will also identify higher risk participants and examine them against a control group of lower risk participants.

Study Sample Population

160 healthy participants (aged 12-25 years)

Impact

The successful completion of this project will provide an integrative view of the dynamic configuration of major brain networks across cognitive states during the transition from adolescence to adulthood and quantify its association with neuropsychiatric traits. By mapping the brain functional connectome during this critical age window, this work has the potential to provide a transdiagnostic framework for linking mental health disorders to brain mechanisms involved in the maturation of brain networks.

Characterizing the Impact of Auditory Experience on Language, Cognitive, and Neural Development in Children

Research Project Leader: Elizabeth Heinrichs-Graham, Ph.D.

Elizabeth Heinrichs-Graham

Dr. Heinrichs-Graham received her Ph.D. in Neuroscience and Behavior from the University of Nebraska at Omaha in 2015. Prior to joining the Institute for Human Neuroscience as Director of the Cognitive and Sensory Imaging Laboratory in 2021, she was an Assistant Professor in the Department of Neurological Sciences at the University of Nebraska Medical Center. Her work utilizes advanced neuroimaging methods such as MEG and structural MRI, coupled with advanced behavioral testing, to identify the neural dynamics of cognitive function and dysfunction throughout development.

Study Overview

The overall goal of this study is to determine the impact of hearing loss on verbal and nonverbal cognitive development in children using an advanced, multimodal imaging approach. Specifically, we will identify the effects of hearing loss on the neural dynamics serving higher order cognition and determine how these changes impact language development. Finally, we will investigate how hearing intervention parameters mediate the relationships between cognitive, language, and brain function in children with hearing loss.

Specific Aims

  • (Aim 1) Identify differences in behavioral performance and neurophysiological activity during verbal and nonverbal higher-order cognitive tasks between children with hearing loss and children with normal hearing.
  • (Aim 2) Determine which neural markers of verbal and nonverbal cognitive processing predict language development in children with normal hearing and identify how these relationships are altered in children with hearing loss.
  • (Aim 3) Quantify the impact of auditory dosage on verbal and nonverbal behavioral performance and neurophysiology in children with hearing loss.

Study Sample Population

112 participants (aged 7-14 years; half female), including 56 children with bilateral mild-to-severe hearing loss (defined as better-ear hearing threshold between 20 and 79 dB) who are currently fit with a hearing aid, and 56 healthy demographically matched normal-hearing controls.

Impact

The current study will fill a critical knowledge gap on the effects of hearing loss, and the quality of subsequent hearing intervention, on the brain dynamics underlying cognitive and language development. This has the potential to dramatically shift the field's understanding of cognitive and language dysfunction in hearing loss, which would significantly impact our approach to therapeutic and academic interventions.

Pubertal Hormone Levels Differentially Modulate the Neural Circuits Implicated in Emotion Dysregulation in Youth with Psychopathology

Research Project Leader: Stuart White, Ph.D.

Stuart White

Dr. White received his Ph.D. in Applied Developmental Psychology from the University of New Orleans. From 2010 to 2015, he was a post-doctoral fellow, and later a research fellow, in the Division of Intramural Research at the National Institute of Mental Health within NIH. He was the recipient of an early career development award from NIMH (K01), in which he developed expertise in neuro-endocrinology and examined the role that testosterone plays in disrupting the neural systems involved in emotion regulation in pediatric Posttraumatic Stress Disorder.

Study Overview

The objective of this project is to identify the role of testosterone and cortisol reactivity in modulating neural activity associated with emotion regulation in male and female adolescents without and with psychopathology (i.e., emotion regulation issues).

Specific Aims

  • (Aim 1) Determine the extent to which T reactivity differentially modulates neural responses during emotion regulation in youth with emotion regulation-related psychopathology relative to typically-developing (TD) youth, and identify the degree to which pubertal stage moderates this relationship in each group.
  • (Aim 2) Elucidate the role of C reactivity in modulating neural responses during emotion regulation in youth with psychopathology and TD youth, and determine the degree to which pubertal stage moderates these relationships.
  • (Aim 3) Identify the role of biological sex in modulating T and C reactivity in the context of emotion regulation in youth with psychopathology relative to TD youth.

Study Sample Population

210 adolescent participants (aged 9-15 years; half female; half community controls), including 105 adolescent patients with psychopathology (i.e., emotion regulation issues).

Impact

Findings from this project will advance our understanding of the biological mechanisms and pathways underlying emotion regulation in adolescent psychopathology, thereby providing a high impact contribution to the NIH's mission to identify key biomarkers of mental disorders. Furthermore, we will clarify the role of pubertal development and sex in the action of these biological factors, which will facilitate the development of novel intervention targets that may vary based on developmental status and/or sex.

Cognitive, Immunological, and Neurophysiological Consequences of Home Radon Exposure in Children and Adolescents

Research Project Leader: Brittany K. Taylor, Ph.D.

Brittany Taylor

Dr. Taylor earned her Ph.D. in Applied Developmental Science from Colorado State University in 2017. She then completed two postdoctoral research fellowships at Boys Town National Research Hospital and the University of Nebraska Medical Center, where she studied development and psychopathology using multimodal neuroimaging techniques in pediatric populations. Now as the Director of the Neurodiversity Laboratory, her primary works are centered on developing and testing models of individual differences in cognitive and brain development, with an emphasis on environmental and biological factors impacting maturation and outcomes.

Study Overview

The overarching goal of the current study is to better understand the impact of home radon exposure on structural and functional brain development in children and adolescents. Radon is a naturally-occurring, carcinogenic gas that exists in persistently high concentrations within homes in the local area (eastern Nebraska and western Iowa). Chronic radon exposure is known to increase inflammation throughout the body, including increases in cytokines implicated in neuroinflammation. However, little is known about the degree to which this radon exposure and resultant inflammation may be impacting brain and cognitive development in youths. Herein, we will address this critical gap in knowledge and explore how a common environmental toxin impacts trajectories of neurocognitive development in a multimodal neuroimaging study.

Specific Aims

  • (Aim 1) Identify the impact of home radon exposure on the neural oscillatory dynamics serving specific aspects of attentional processing in developing youth.
  • (Aim 2) Determine aspects of structural brain development that are most critically impacted by radon exposure.
  • (Aim 3) Quantify the degree to which neuroimflammation mediates the relationship between home radon exposure and neurocognitive aberrations.

Study Sample Population

112 typically developing youths ages 8 to 15 years-old (50% female)

Impact

The current study will shed light on the potential for harm on child and adolescent development by an extremely common, but unfortunately under-studied environmental toxin. The outcomes of this study have the potential to shape the future of public health policy surrounding radon awareness and mitigation efforts, and this is especially true in the surrounding region where home radon levels are some of the highest in the nation.