Blythe A. Corbett, Ph.D. : SENSE Lab Director

Blythe Corbett Ph.D.Dr. Corbett joined the Vanderbilt faculty in August 2010 and is currently an Associate Professor in the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences, and Investigator with the Vanderbilt Kennedy Center. She is a licensed clinical psychologist specializing in pediatric neuropsychology.

Dr. Corbett’s Primary Contributions to Science:

Examination of the diurnal regulation of hormones in children with ASD
One of the cornerstones of the SENSE research program is examining the rhythmicity and responsivity of the stress hormone cortisol and the associations with factors, such as novelty, age, pubertal development and sensory functioning that can affect it. Cortisol has a normal circadian rhythm with a peak in the morning to include the cortisol awakening response (CAR) and decline throughout the day with the lowest level in the evening. Across multiple studies, research in the lab has shown that children with ASD evidence significant variability in the day-to-day regulation of cortisol, and elevated evening values, which have been associated with changes and cumulative stress throughout the day.

Study of social behavior and stress responsivity in children with ASD
Dr. Corbett has been examining social and emotional functioning as it pertains to stress-responsive neurobiological systems, including the Limbic-Hypothalamic-Pituitary-Adrenocortical (LHPA) axis. Across a series of studies, Dr. Corbett and her collaborators have shown significant elevations in cortisol in response to various social and nonsocial stimuli when compared to typically developing children of the same age and gender. For example, studies have demonstrated that the context in which the social situation occurs is vital in determining stress response in ASD.  Using a standardized lab-based protocol known to reliably activate the LHPA axis, this research showed that in contrast to children with TD, children with ASD did not find social evaluative threat to be stressful.  However, using her ecologically valid Peer Interaction Paradigm in which children play in a natural context, we have shown that many children with ASD show significant stress during benign social interactions with peers.

Development of novel peer-mediated paradigms and treatments for children with ASD.
Typically developing peers are incorporated into nearly every aspect of SENSE research as research subjects, research confederates (junior research assistants) and as trained interventionists through peer-mediated approaches. Peers can play a pivotal role in treatment for children with ASD. Most notably, Dr. Corbett developed SENSE TheatreÒ, a peer-mediated, theatre-based intervention in which peers serve as “expert models” of social communication and flexible thinking.  Findings from randomized control trial studies show that SENSE TheatreÒ
has contributed to significant immediate and generalized gains in social cognition, social interaction and reciprocal communication in youth with ASD.

Scientific Metrics

Current Members

Rachael Muscatello, Graduate Student

Rachael Muscatello, Graduate StudentRachael is a doctoral candidate in the Vanderbilt Neuroscience Graduate Program. She earned her B.S. in Neuroscience from the College of William and Mary in 2015. At William and Mary, she worked as a student research assistant investigating the effects of fetal alcohol exposure on zebrafish learning and memory. Rachael began working with children with autism during high school and continued that work throughout her time as an undergraduate. It was through these experiences that she became interested in pursuing research in ASD as a career path. Her research interests in the lab include investigating stress, anxiety, and autonomic dysregulation in ASD. Rachael is a 2017 Autism Speaks Weatherstone Predoctoral Fellow for her project “Physiological Response Patterns in Children with ASD to Predict Internalizing Symptoms”. Rachael is also gaining expertise in relevant diagnostic and neuropsychological measurements.

When Rachael is not in the lab, she can be found playing with her cats, Minnie and Stewart and updating their social media profiles.

Current publications: https://scholar.google.com/citations?user=zdorGKsAAAAJ&hl=en

Email: Rachael.a.muscatello@vanderbilt.edu

Emily C. McGinn, Clinical/Translational Research Coordinator

Emily C. McGinn, Clinical/Translational Research Coordinator

Emily is a graduate of Iowa State University and received her Bachelor of Science in Psychology in 2014. As a nanny for a boy on the autism spectrum for many summers, Emily realized her passion for helping children connect to the world in which they live. She sought out more experience at a Pediatric Therapy Clinic in Madison, Wisconsin. In between adventures of studying in Spain and traveling to Malawi, she found herself increasingly interested in developmental psychology. Her volunteer experience and coursework led her to an internship at a Center for Autism in Nashville where she was immersed in an early intervention program working from the platform of Applied Behavior Analysis. At the close of her internship, she decided to take root in Nashville! After her internship, Emily spent nearly three years working as a Support Instructor at Illuminate Academy, an alternative educational and therapeutic program designed to meet the needs of all learners. She co-launched their first early intervention program in the spring of 2016, mostly serving children with autism spectrum disorder. In the SENSE Lab, Emily is the Research Coordinator for the Pubertal Development Study, which examines stress and social functioning across pubertal development in children with and without autism. The goal of the research is to better understand adolescence in order to identify potential risk factors, treatment targets, and therapeutic strategies.

Emily plans to pursue graduate school within the next two years in the field of developmental psychology. She enjoys the outdoors, spending quality time with family and friends, and learning to play the mandolin!

Contact: emily.c.mcginn@vumc.org

Sara Ioannou, Research Assistant

Sara Ioannou, Research AssistantIn the SENSE Lab, Sara primarily works with the SENSE multisite RCT, Investigating Social Competence in Youth with Autism. Sara obtained her B.S in Psychology and Biology and, subsequently, her M.S. in Psychology from Lipscomb University. Her interest in autism stems from years of volunteer work, which led to collaborating with the SENSE Lab while a master’s student—she assisted with the playground peer interaction protocol and as a counselor for SENSE Theatre, and she contributed to a paper on SENSE Theatre and stress/anxiety, published in the journal Autism. Additionally, Sara composed her master’s thesis, “Anxiety and Autism: Treatment with Social Skills and Measurement with the STAIC” in collaboration with the lab, which led to a poster presentation at the Tennessee Psychological Association.

Sara is thrilled to be a part of the important work of the SENSE Lab, where she manages protocol implementation, recruitment, study visits, and behavioral coding for the multisite R01, along with developing her proficiency in neuropsychological assessments and database management. Sara hopes to continue to work in autism research through obtaining her PhD in the future.

Contact: sara.c.ioannou.1@vumc.org

Former Students from Recent Years

Kale Edmiston, Ph.D.

Kale Edmiston, Graduate Student

Kale Edmiston is a graduate student in the Vanderbilt Neuroscience PhD program. He obtained a B.A. in liberal arts from Hampshire College in 2007. He then worked as a research assistant at The Yale Mood Disorders Research Program. It was at this time that Kale became interested in the neural correlates of adolescent social and emotional development. His dissertation research in the SENSE lab involves using functional magnetic resonance imaging to investigate the relationship between brain activity, stress, face processing, and social behavior in adolescents with autism spectrum disorders.

In addition to his neuroscience research interests, Kale is committed to supporting the career development of underrepresented groups in the sciences. He is also an advisory member of the Vanderbilt Program for LGBTI Health with an interest in healthcare access for transgender people. When he is not hard at work on these projects, he enjoys spending time with his partner and their two dogs. For a list of current publications, please see: http://tinyurl.com/EKEdmiston

Scott Blain

Scott Blain, Research CollaboratorScott is a collaborator and former member of the SENSE Lab. He is currently an NSF Graduate Research Fellow at the University of Minnesota: Twin Cities. There, his research focuses on the neural and genetic bases of individual differences in social behavior across a range of neuro-typical and psychiatric populations.

While in the SENSE Lab as an undergraduate at Vanderbilt, Scott spearheaded projects focused on music cognition in ASD, behavioral manifestations of stress, and the use of hair cortisol as a bio-marker of chronic stress. Other involvement included contributions to work on sensory sensitivity in ASD, the impact of SENSE Theatre on Anxiety, and piloting a videogame-based paradigm to measure social stress in adolescents. He was also involved in SENSE Theatre as a pianist and actor. Scott has published work with Dr. Corbett in Autism Research, Autism, and Frontiers, and has presented work at conferences including the Society for Music Perception and Cognition, Society for Social Neuroscience, Association for Psychology Science, and Society for Affective Science. 

At Vanderbilt, Scott was also involved in research with Dr. Sohee Park, Dr. Reyna Gordon, and Dr. Rachel Aaron. Outside of research, Scott enjoys playing piano, reading, and eating a variety of tasty foods. In the future, Scott hopes to create a program of translational research at the intersection of Personality, Psychiatry, and Social Neuroscience.

Ali Byrne

Ali Byrne: Research Assistant

Ali Byrne graduated with Honors from Vanderbilt University in May 2014 with a B.A. in Medicine, Health, and Society and a minor in Neuroscience. Ali’s interest in developmental disorders stemmed from her experience growing up with a neighbor with autism. During her sophomore year, Ali began working as an Undergraduate Research Assistant for Dr. Corbett in the SENSE Lab. As an undergrad, Ali helped coordinate the Peer Interaction study, which looks at stress, play, and neurological differences in children with and without an Autism Spectrum Disorder from ages 7-13. Ali also volunteered as a Counselor in the SENSE Theatre Intervention during the winter of 2014. She tremendously enjoyed getting to know the participants and watching them gain confidence throughout the program.

Senior year, Ali completed her Honors Thesis on the “Factors Associated with Later Age Autism Diagnosis in Hispanic Children: A Focus on the Pediatrician-Parent Relationship.” Ali’s fluency in Spanish and background with the Hispanic Culture allowed her to work closely with Spanish-speaking families in the Nashville area. During the study, Ali was asked to speak on two Spanish Radio Stations to raise awareness about autism, as well as recruit participants for her study.

Currently, Ali is coordinating the SENSE Theatre Intervention program, which aims to improve the social communication in children with ASD. Specifically, Ali is recruiting for SENSE Theatre, scheduling participants, and carrying out study protocol for the NIMH funded project. Additionally, she will be a counselor for the upcoming winter SENSE Theatre intervention. Ali looks forward to gaining further clinical and research experiences during her time in the lab.

Lastly, Ali is applying to medical school and hopes to pursue a career in Developmental Pediatrics.

Contact Information: Phone: (615) 322-4132 Email: Alexandra.k.byrne@vanderbilt.edu

Contact Information

Varik Harris

Varik HarrisVarik Harris is currently a senior at Hume-Fogg academic high school. He is currently interning in the SENSE Lab as part of his coursework for the School for Science and Math at Vanderbilt, a program sponsored by the Center for Science Outreach at Vanderbilt University. In addition to helping with various lab studies, he has undertaken his own project comparing the stress levels of children with autism spectrum disorders with parental reports on social functioning, which earned first place at the annual Center for Science Outreach joint symposium. He has also served as a peer during the 2014 SENSE Theatre summer camp, and looks forward to helping the camp and the lab grow in the future. He plans to submit the research he has been conducting to the Siemen’s science and math competition, as well as the Intel Science Talent Search.