Research Interests

In our lab, we use functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), functional near-infrared spectroscopy (fNIRS), eye tracking, and genetics to explore how the brain works and develops. Our work can be divided into three areas.

Charting the development of the social brain
Humans are an intensely social species. Social cognition refers to our ability to perceive, categorize, remember, analyze, reason with, and behave toward other people. We are specifically interested in how the brain processes socially relevant visual stimuli, including faces, emotions, gestures, body movements, and eye contact. These basic building blocks form a foundation for complex skills such as theory of mind, the ability to represent others' mental states such as thoughts and beliefs, even if they are different than our own, and to use our understanding of other people's beliefs to predict what they might do next.

Neural Basis of Autism
Autism is a devastating neurodevelopmental disorder that affects children, their families, and society. Our laboratory is working to identify the neural mechanisms involved in autism. People with autism exhibit abnormal capacities to perceive and understand their own and others' emotions. This led Leo Kanner, who first characterized autism, to describe this disorder as a "disturbance in affective contact". People with autism may be less able to use emotion to regulate decision and social judgments as compared to typically developing children and adults. If individuals with autism do not develop the brain circuitry that generates the same emotional response to people and situations as typically developing individuals do, then they will struggle to understand how others feel and think. We are currently conducting studies to identify the behavioral, brain, and genetic mechanisms involved in the disruptions of emotion processing in children with autism.

Educational neuroscience: Origins of learning
We are also interested in how developmental changes in the brain relate to the acquisition of cognitive abilities, including the ways in which children perceive and think about numbers and letters. This basic understanding might inform the understanding of individual differences in scholastic abilities. We also use educational neuroscience to better characterize how environmental factors such as peer relations interact with the development of neural mechanisms. This program of research could eventually lead to improvements in curriculum and intervention programs for children at risk for developing difficulties in school.