Current research

General information

Research in the CDN Lab explores the development and neurobiological correlates of cognitive development, particularly learning, memory, and attention during the infancy through adolescence. Our laboratory employs several approaches to studying brain-behavior relations, including behavioral research and structural and functional magnetic resonance imaging (MRI).

Equipment/facilitiesMRI Simulator

Our laboratory is equipped with a 128 channel EGI netstation and a SMI Eye Tracking System. We also have shared use of a 3.0 Tesla Siemens research scanner located at the Center for Magnetic Resonance Imaging, which is equipped with IFIS stimulus presentation and response collection devices for functional MRI studies.

Additionally, we also utilize a MRI simulator to acclimate children and adults to the scanning environment; this simulator is equipped with an integrated functional imaging system (IFIS) for stimulus display and response recording.

Ongoing projects

Impact of BDNF Genotype and Early Adversity on Brain Development

With colleagues at the University of Minnesota and at the Sackler Institute we are conducting a study addressing learning, attention, and brain development in internationally adopted youth using behavioral, neuroimaging, and genetic measures. Specifically, our research tests the hypothesis that the Val66Met polymorphism of the BDNF gene will moderate the impact of early institutional/orphanage rearing on the structural and functional development of brain systems including the hippocampus, amygdala and prefrontal cortex. A comparison group of Minnesota youth not internationally adopted is also participating in the study.Infant in eye tracking experiment.

Frontal Cortex Functioning During Infancy: The Role of Early Experience, Development, and Individual Differences

Of all the parts of the human brain, the frontal lobes undergo the longest period of postnatal development. Although frontal lobe functions, including executive function (i.e. planning, inhibitory control, working memory, etc.) have been examined extensively in adults, few studies have examined the development of the frontal cortex and related cognitive skills during early infancy. In this study we are investigating how variations in early life experience (including being born moderate-to-late preterm) and individual differences (e.g. in sleep patterns, rate of physical growth) influence the development of early executive function skills during infancy.

Continuity and Change in Infant Cognitive Development at Preschool-Age

Despite broad interest in infant cognitive development, only a small number of studies have looked at whether individual differences in infant cognition are stable and predictive of more complex cognitive abilities across time. We are currently re-recruiting 4-5 year-old children who participated in a series of infant cognitive assessments in our lab between 7-8 months of age. We are interested in how separable aspects of infant cognitive development uniquely predict more complicated cognitive skills during early childhood, and how continuity or discontinuity in cognitive development between infancy and the preschool years is influenced by individual differences between children in temperament, genetic background, and environmental risk.

Reward and Executive Function

In this study, we’re looking at how 9-11 year old children understand rewards and specifically how that’s related to things like how well they pay attention, plan, and focus on relevant information. We are also interested in looking at how kids’ brains process information about rewards, so as a follow-up to the study, we’ll be asking families who are willing to come back and take part in an MRI scan. An MRI machine takes pictures of the brain, and measures what parts are working hardest during a game. With all of this information we’ll be able to learn more about how planning and attention are related to how kids understand rewards and which parts of their brains are working hard!

Adolescent Brain Development and Alcohol Exposure

Adolescence is a period of life during which individuals are highly sensitive to the addictive effects of alcohol. This project uses behavioral and neuroimaging methods to investigate the relationship between adolescent alcohol exposure and brain development. The central question is whether alcohol consumption during adolescence causes changes in the brain that make it more likely that an individual will continue to drink, or whether some adolescents are more likely to experiment with alcohol because of the way their brains have already developed. This research, conducted in collaboration with Drs. Steve Malone and Bill Iacono and their colleagues at the Minnesota Center for Twin and Family Research, looks at behavioral differences between identical twins at two different points in time to determine how structural and functional changes in the brain occur in relation to drinking activity. The involvement of identical twins is critical because any observed differences between them cannot be attributed to differences in genetic endowment. Instead, they must be due to differential genetic expression, which is presumably a consequence of differing life experiences between the two twins.

Brain Correlates Of Resilience

In collaboration with Dr. Dante Cicchetti and Drs. Sheree Toth and Fred Rogosch from the Mount Hope Family Center at the University of Rochester, NY, we are conducting a study examining brain development, risk and reward processes, cognitive conflict, and emotion processing in young adults with a history of child maltreatment. Specifically, our research tests the hypothesis that individual differences in adaptive functioning will be influenced in part by how well one navigates decisions of risk and reward, adjusts one's actions in light of new information, and processes emotional cues. We also expect to see structural and functional differences in brain regions including the hippocampus, amygdala, and prefrontal cortex between those who have and have not successfully adapted to their current environments after a history of maltreatment.

Emotion Perception Project

We are investigating five-year-old children's ability to recognize different emotions (happy, sad, angry, fear, surprise, and neutral) from various modalities: facial expressions, static body postures, and point-light body movements. At age five, children begin formal schooling, so emotion recognition may become more important for successful interaction with both teachers and peers. Previous research with facial expressions has shown that children recognize happy earlier than they recognize other emotions, but this pattern has not been tested with non-face modalities. We are also examining how accurately children can recognize both low-intensity and high-intensity facial expressions, how they spontaneously categorize facial expressions, and their conceptual understanding of emotions. We are also investigating whether children's conceptual understanding of emotions and their ability to recognize emotions from all these modalities are related to their social skills, which are reported by parents using a questionnaire.Child participating in experiment.

Executive Function Development during the Preschool Years

We are currently conducting a study on the development of executive function (the brain processes responsible for goal-oriented behavior, such as attention, learning, memory, and self-regulation) in preschool-aged children. Two groups of four-year-olds are participating in the study: those born prematurely (at 32-36 weeks gestation) and those born at term (37-41 weeks gestation). We are interested in better understanding whether children who were born moderately preterm may need extra help with executive function skills as they reach school-age or whether they have caught up with their full-term peers.