I am a cross-species translational neuroscientist, studying the developmental effects of early adversity at the whole organism level.
NIMH Pathway to Independence Award
I am very pleased to announce that I have recently been awarded a competitive fellowship from the National Institutes of Mental Health (NIMH) - K99/R00 Pathway to Independence Award. The K99/R00 grant enables me to continue my training in human populations using fMRI until 2019, and funds my initial years of research as an Assistant Professor thereafter. As a fellow I will be discovering how adversity exposure during infancy/childhood influences the development of the gastrointestinal microbiome, and how those changes relate to memory and hippocampal development. If you want to participate in that research project and are aged between 2-17 years, or you have a child in that age range who wants to participate, please visit the DANLAB Columbia University website.
Sackler Institute of Developmental Psychobiology, Columbia University
Some of my current research is generously funded by the Sackler Institute of Developmental Psychobiology at Columbia University Medical Center. There I work as a Sackler Parent-Infant Project Fellow, addressing how parent-child interactions influence child development. With my mentor Dr. Catherine Monk of the Perinatal Pathways Lab, we are approaching that question by examining learning and memory in pregnant women and new mothers. With my mentor Dr. Bill Fifer, we are looking at how gastrointestinal bacteria present during fetal life influences cognitive development.
NHMRC Postdoctoral Research Fellow, Columbia University
My initial postdoctoral research was funded by the National Health and Medical Research Council. As an NHMRC Early Career Research Fellow I worked with Dr Nim Tottenham of the Developmental Affective Neuroscience (DAN) Laboratory at Columbia University, Psychology. In the DAN Lab we seek to understand how children develop emotionally and socially, how their growing brains contribute to their social and emotional development, as well as how their gastrointestinal microbes are involved in their maturation.
University of Melbourne
My NHMRC Early Career Fellowship funds my research in the United States through an adjunct appointment in the Department of Psychiatry, The University of Melbourne, Australia. My post-doctoral mentor in Australia is Dr Sarah Whittle of the Social Affective Neurodevelopment (SAND) Laboratory. We recently had a manuscript accepted which looks at parent-adolescent interactions, amygdala resting-state connectivity, and depression symptoms, which will be published in the Journal of the American Academy for Child and Adolescent Psychiatry in 2017. I continue collaborating with researchers from the University of Melbourne on research involving microbes and emotion functioning, to participate or learn more about that research click here.
I completed my PhD in 2012 in the Department of Psychology, The University of New South Wales, Sydney, Australia. My doctoral mentor was Professor Rick Richardson. My doctoral thesis examined the effect of early life adversity on the maturation of threat learning and extinction of threat responses in rodents. After that time, I examined generational effects of early adversity and the effectiveness of probiotics as a treatment for adversity.
Clinical Masters, Psychology
I obtained my training in Clinical Psychology at the same time I completed my PhD, via the 'Combined PhD/Clinical Masters' program at UNSW. My clinical internships included the Child Behaviour Research Clinic headed by Professor Mark Dadds (which is now at Sydney University), specializing in family therapy for child externalizing behavior problems (e.g., oppositional defiant disorder and conduct disorder); there I was mentored by Professor Dadds and Dr Sonia Sultan. I also completed a clinical internship at the Anxiety Treatment and Research Unit at Westmead Hospital, Sydney, a tertiary referral clinic specializing in adult mental health, where I was mentored by Dr Juliette Drobny.
Current research interests and topics of study
Neurobiology of emotion development and parent child interactions
Parental Buffering of Emotion Neurobiology & Generational Mental Health
Emotion learning & associated neurobiology change dramatically across development. Parent child interactions play a critical role in those maturational effects. My research examines how parents regulate emotional reactivity and learning in children. I also examine how parental regulation scaffolds the development of emotion neurobiology, contributing to the integrity of emotion circuits.
I have also begun to examine how the early experiences of our ancestors (e.g., our parents and grandparents) can affect our own emotional development.
Emotion development following adversity
The Acceleration Hypothesis & Neuro-Environmental Loop of Plasticity
In addition to studying typical development, I also study populations that have been exposed to sub-optimal rearing environments (such as animal models of chronic parental absence, and human populations exposed to early stress such as institutional caregiving and chronic childhood disease). By examining these populations and contrasting their development against 'typical' peers I can determine aspects of emotion maturation that are heavily impacted by the environment. Such an understanding will afford us greater insight into the links between adversity and mental illness, and will help us to develop more effective preventions and treatments for such outcomes. Some of this research is being carried out in collaboration with Dr. Nadine Kasparian at the University of New South wales.
The gastrointestinal microbiome
"I can feel it in my gut"...
Many studies have suggested that our emotional functioning is linked to our gastrointestinal health, particularly in the context of stress. In fact, it is now known that our gut functions almost like a second brain, having a strong influence on how we think and feel, and how we cope with stress. My research examines how gut bacteria change in response to stress, and whether early stressors can cause permanent changes to the gastrointestinal bacteria (microbiome) in ways that may increase vulnerability to mental illness. In addition, my colleagues and I have shown that altering the microbiome - through a probiotic treatment - can ameliorate the effects of stress on emotion development in rodents. I am currently translating those findings to human populations exposed to adversity. That project is funded by my grant from the NIMH (Pathway to Independence Award). In that study, we are looking at how the gut microbiome is different in young children and adolescents exposed to adversity, or not. In addition, we are looking at how gut microbes are related to memory development and hippocampal functioning (see below). If you are interested in participating in that study click here. If you want to read more about the microbiome in human health, look up my blog - The Two Brains.
Childhood amnesia and the developing memory system
Why can't we remember things that happened to us in our infancy. Why are our memories from childhood generally 'spotty' and difficult to recall? This phenomenon is called 'Childhood Amnesia' and occurs in all altricial species (i.e., those that are born dependent on their parents). My research in this area has examined how early rearing experiences impact the developmental offset of childhood amnesia in rodents. More recently, in the Tottenham Laboratory I have begun to translate my research to humans by investigating the neural mechanisms underlying long-term memory across human development using fMRI. This research is being carried out in collaboration with Dr Lila Davachi at New York University. We recently received competitive intramural funding for a pilot version of this project. The full study was then funded by the Brain Behavior Research Foundation NARSAD Young Investigator grant. In addition my funding from the NIMH (Pathway to Independence Award) will fund the analysis of microbiome data in relation to memory development.