This Mentored Research Scientist Development Award (K23) will enable the candidate to independently conduct research on the development of emotion regulation in autism that integrates clinical and brain findings. The candidate is a licensed child clinical psychologist, specialized in autism, who also has prior genetics training. Her short-term goals are to pursue training in the cognitive and affective neuroscience mechanisms underlying the development of emotion regulation in childhood and adolescence, the use of functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), and methods for eliciting emotion and measuring emotional reactivity. Training will be accomplished via (a) meetings and guided readings with mentors Nancy Minshew, M.D., Kevin Pelphrey, Ph.D., and Ronald Dahl, M.D., and an expert team of internal and external consultants;(b) formal coursework;(c) attendance at local and national conferences, journal clubs, and research meetings, and (d) supervised hands-on experiences in the collection and analysis of data using fMRI methodologies and research on emotion regulation. The University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine and Carnegie Mellon University will be the primary sites of this training, offering a combination of excellence in neuroscience and psychiatric research. A key component of the training is participation in all aspects of the proposed study, which utilizes functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging to explore the cognitive control of emotion in ASD. This particular component of emotion regulation was chosen as the focus based on the applicant's clinical impressions that perseveration often leads to disruptive emotional meltdowns in ASD, and because research in other populations suggests that attentional biases related to emotion regulation may be highly amenable to treatment. Within the infrastructure of the Pittsburgh NIH Autism Center of Excellence (PI Minshew), the proposed research will include 120 12 to 18 year old children, with and without high-functioning autism/Asperger's. Participants will view fear-inducing and neutral film clips while in the scanner. Multiple methods will be used to capture emotional reactivity;most notably, participants will continuously rate their emotional status throughout their time in the scanner. The study aims to: characterize the role of perseveration in emotional responses to negative stimuli in autism;investigate the functioning of the amygdala and pre- frontal cortex, and their interactions, during emotional responses;and gather preliminary data on the impact of age and comorbid mood, anxiety, and inattention symptoms on individual differences in emotional responding in autism. Insights into emotion regulation gained from this study, and the skills that the applicant will attain through the related training, will place the applicant in a strong position to conduct research on emotion regulation in autism that will specify mechanisms of change to inform treatment development and explain varying response to treatment.
Poor emotion regulation in autism often leads to "meltdowns" and worsening of social functioning. This research will identify specific components of emotion regulation that are problematic in autism, and the underlying brain mechanisms related to these difficulties. This information can then be used to develop novel treatments to improve emotional and social functioning in autism.
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