Disruptions in Brain Functional Connectivity as a Function of Callous-Unemotional Traits in Children and Adolescents

Alexis conducting an MRI on a teddy bear




Assistant Professor Of Psychology

Project Summary

This summer, I was granted the incredible opportunity to work in Dr. Allyson Mackey’s lab exploring the impact of early life experiences on brain plasticity, learning, and neurocognitive development. When I accepted it, I anticipated that I would learn the ropes of participant recruitment, neurocognitive assessment administration, and fMRI data collection.

However, working in her lab awarded me an experience that was significantly more meaningful and tremendously more valuable than I had ever envisioned. While I did acquire a considerable amount of knowledge on participant recruitment strategies, neurocognitive assessment scoring and administration techniques, and methods for collecting and analyzing fMRI data, to limit my summer research to merely those achievements would be a disservice to my experience.

As a research assistant in the Changing Brain Lab, I delved into every aspect of the research process, from precursory literature searches to computerized data entry and analysis. Through this work, I became sufficiently familiar with applications such as REDCap, SalesForce, and programming languages such as R Studio, Terminal, and MATLAB. These applications and software programs were integral to executing the research pipeline of collecting, organizing, storing, and analyzing data, and being able to understand their features contributed immensely to my professional development of research skills. Additionally, I was able to assist in developing a coding scheme for a parent-child interaction, a dynamic that the lab was just beginning to explore. However, throughout all of the tasks and skills I learned in the lab, my absolute favorite was being able to engage with the children who participated in our study every week. During the behavioral sessions, participants ages 4 to 7 would visit the lab with their families and I would administer a battery of neurocognitive assessments to the child. After the battery was finished, I would bring the child and his/her family to the mock fMRI scanner, where they would acquaint themselves with the machine and practice staying still.

While these duties were certainly consistent with my interest in studying child neuropsychology, I chose to focus on clinical populations for my independent research project. For this research, I explored callous-unemotional traits in children with Oppositional Defiant Disorder and healthy comparison subjects. Using resting-state fMRI data from the Healthy Brain Network, I examined whether the brain’s functional network connectivity differs as a function of callous-unemotional traits in children ages 5 to 13. My investigation was centered on two brain regions of interest often implicated in callous-unemotional traits: the amygdala and the insula. Although the limited duration of my time in the lab prohibited my ability to see the final results, I was able to examine the brain maps of a few participants that seemed to point to differing levels of activity within similar brain regions based on the level of callous-unemotional traits in that child.

Through these various responsibilities, I became well informed of the difficulties and necessities of conducting quality research, such as the cruciality of organization when collecting, managing, and analyzing data and the importance of keeping pace with the scholarship of a particular field. However, after a rewarding 10 weeks of lab work, I can confidently say that I am ready to take on these challenges in the future in the hopes of advancing pivotal scientific knowledge.