The DCN Lab is fortunate to be supported by funding from the National Institutes of Health (NIMH, NIDA, NIDDK), from the National Science Foundation (NSF), and from private sources to conduct our research. The following federal grants are currently active and supporting the lab: R01MH112588; R01DK119814; R56MH108616; NSF1806045; U01DA041156. See below for more information on each project.

Project Summaries

R01MH112588 and R56MH108616: “Biosignatures of executive function and emotion regulation in young children with ADHD” and R01DK119814 “Early childhood behavioral and neurobiological profiles in the prediction of obesity: The role of self-regulation and the caregiving environment.”

PIs: Paulo Graziano/Anthony Dick

“Biosignatures of executive function and emotion regulation in young children with ADHD”

Summary. Children’s early externalizing behavior problems, including symptoms of Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) such as inattention, hyperactivity, and impulsivity, are the most common reason for early childhood mental health referrals and occur in 10-25% of preschoolers. Despite the successful development of evidence-based treatments for ADHD, early interventions have been shown to have little impact on children’s longterm academic and social impairment. A major barrier to understanding the long-term treatment impact on children with ADHD is that current definitions of the disorder rely solely on DSM-V symptom profiles. A simplistic classification system limits our understanding of the heterogeneity present in ADHD, particularly during the preschool and early elementary school years. The heterogeneity of the disorder suggests that the ADHD
may be characterized by multiple subgroups with varying neuropsychological profiles, with the assumption is that these profiles reflect different underlying neurobiological substrates.

However, an established understanding of the neurobiology of ADHD is lacking, in particular, in the executive function (EF) and emotion regulation (ER) domains. In accordance with the NIMH strategic plan (Strategy 1.4) we seek to overcome these limitations by identifying distinct “biosignatures” derived from an integration of neurobiological (functional and structural magnetic resonance imaging (MRI); functional MRI and diffusion-weighted MRI) and pathophysiological markers of EF and ER. This will aid in the early identification and tailored treatment of behavioral and neuropsychological phenotypes of ADHD. Additionally, we propose to examine the extent to which the identified “biosignatures” predict children’s early intervention response. Understanding and better capturing the heterogeneity of EF and ER may lead to more targeted treatments to improve children with ADHD’s social and academic functioning.

Public Health Relevance: The proposed study aims to characterize the heterogeneity of EF and ER among young children with ADHD across multiple levels of analysis, using functional and structural MRI, and psychophysiological measurements of nervous system function. The work will advance the classification of ADHD, which will encourage novel ways to define and understand the disorder, with the aim of developing novel approaches to the treatment of ADHD.

“Early childhood behavioral and neurobiological profiles in the prediction of obesity: The role of self-regulation and the caregiving environment”

While the prevalence rates of pediatric obesity have plateaued in recent years, a staggering 35% of school age children remain classified as overweight or obese. Children from ethnic minority groups are at an even greater risk, with nearly 40% of Latino children so-classified by age 6. The physical and mental health risks and societal costs associated with pediatric obesity are well established. It is thus crucial for research efforts to focus on understanding early behavioral phenotypes that can explain individual variability in children’s regulation of energy balance and subsequent weight trajectory. Researchers have documented self-regulation (SR) and poor executive function (EF) as important mechanisms for understanding the development of pediatric obesity, as well as its shared co-morbidities with other mental health disorders (e.g., Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder [ADHD]). Poor executive function (EF), emotion regulation and reactivity (ER), and reward sensitivity (RS) have variously emerged as critical underlying processes in terms of contributing to overeating and food preferences. However, there is a lack of 1) integration of these SR processes when examining weight outcomes, 2) longitudinal studies, which are needed to disentangle whether potential SR deficits are risk factors for the development of obesity or a consequence of it, 3) comprehensive measurement of these SR processes in terms of integrating behavioral measures, neuropsychological, and neurobiological markers, 4) studies examining the predictive association of SR processes as they relate to observed obesogenic mechanisms (e.g., SR of energy intake, healthy-habits) and 5) how environmental factors (e.g., parenting, home environment) can contribute to and moderate the link between SR phenotypes and weight outcomes. Consistent with PAR-18-105, we leverage the ongoing data collection as part of award R01MH112588 (PIs Graziano and Dick), which is measuring young children’s (ages 4 to 6) SR processes (EF, ER, and RS) at a behavioral, neuropsychological, and neurobiological level using MRI. The proposed ancillary study (n = 288) examines how SR phenotypes predict obesogenic mechanisms and subsequent obesity-related trajectories. The proposed sample offers a unique opportunity to examine health outcomes within a typically understudied, yet high-risk population for obesity (i.e., Hispanic/Latino) along with inclusion of a clinical group (i.e., children with ADHD).

Public Health Relevance: While the prevalence rates of pediatric obesity have plateaued in recent years, a staggering 35% of school age children remain classified as overweight (OV; Body Mass Index [BMI] between 85th and 95th %ile for age and sex) or obese (OB; BMI>95th%ile). This study will examine how self-regulation phenotypes (derived from neuropsychological, central, and autonomic nervous system markers of executive function, emotion regulation, and reward sensitivity) predict obesogenic mechanisms (e.g., self-regulation of energy intake and healthy-habits) and subsequent obesity-related trajectories (body mass index, % body fat). The work will advance our understanding of risk factors related to the development of obesity and how environmental factors such as parenting can moderate such risks and inform future interventions.


National Science Foundation RAPID 1805645: Leveraging the ABCD study to examine the effects of Hurricane Irma exposure: The Disaster and Youth, Neural, and Affective Maturation in Context (DYNAMIC) Study.

PIs: Anthony Dick/Jon Comer

This award supports research on children and families affected by Hurricane Irma, which hit the Southeastern United States in September 2017. This research project will study how natural disasters affect brain, thinking, and mood. Natural disasters are disruptive and affect millions of people worldwide each year, including children. Disaster experiences are associated with youth feeling vulnerable and experiencing problems at school, at home, and with peers, as well as problems with mental health and substance use. This research also examines how pre-disaster brain functioning and thinking may protect against some of the effects of disaster-related stress on youth. The funded work will likely inform local, state, and national responses to disasters, identify youth at greatest risk after a disaster, reveal patterns of resilience, and strengthen our understanding of typical child development.

In the year before Hurricane Irma’s landfall, a large sample of children in Florida and South Carolina–who were later affected by the hurricane–began participating in a large, multisite longitudinal investigation of brain and cognitive development, the Adolescent Brain and Cognitive Development (ABCD) study. Also studied was a large sample of control children in California, who were not affected by the hurricane. The current study will take advantage of data collected prior to the hurricane in the ABCD study, which used a battery of neuropsychological, interview, genetic, and structural and functional neuroimaging tests. Because disasters are rarely predictable, most prior studies of the effects of disaster exposure do not have access to important information about research participants’ pre-disaster statuses or levels of functioning; the prospective design of the current research will avoid this problem. In addition, this research will enable data to be collected very soon after the hurricane, while the experiences of the hurricane and its aftermath are fresh. As a result, the researchers will be able to compare pre- and post-hurricane brain functioning, mood, and thinking, to test hypotheses about the effects of disaster-related stress on several developmental processes. Key predictions are that in addition to causing elevated posttraumatic stress symptoms in both cognitive and affective domains, increased hurricane-associated stress will have caused loss of volume, reduced cortical thickness, and impaired neural transmission in specific brain areas (for example, in the hippocampus, amygdala, prefrontal cortex, and other areas). Neural measurements will be taken using T1- and T2-weighted MRI scans and diffusion-weighted MRI scans. By studying children’s Irma-related experiences, traumatic exposure, and evacuation-related stress, this study will afford a unique opportunity to longitudinally examine the effects of disaster exposure and disaster-related stress on youth development. This study will help the general public better understand the effects of disasters on children and identify youth at greatest risk in the aftermath of disasters.

U01DA041156: “ABCD-FIU: Pathways and mechanisms to addiction in Latino youth of South Florida”

PIs: Raul Gonzalez/Angela Laird

The ABCD study is a large multi-site study of brain and cognitive development funded by the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA). FIU is an ABCD study site. The DCN laboratory collaborates with the Principal Investigators and Co-Investigators to conduct this study in the Miami area with children and families from the community.

Summary. Despite significant recent breakthroughs in our understanding of the neurobiological mechanisms involved in substance use (SU) and addiction, progress remains modest toward integrative knowledge on how psychosocial, neurocognitive, and neurobiological risk factors jointly influence SU initiation, escalation, and addiction, and how they are affected in return. The complexity of SU behaviors, their emergence during critical periods of neurodevelopment, and their strong linkages with physical and mental health, demands a comprehensive large- scale, prospective longitudinal study that begins with youth prior to initiation of SU and that incorporates genetic, psychosocial, cultural, neuropsychological, and neuroimaging measures. The aims of this study align with those of the Adolescent Brain Cognitive Development (ABCD) Study Consortium as set forth in RFA-DA-15-015. These are to: (1) Establish how diverse patterns of SU use impact the structure and function of the developing brain; (2) Identify the impact of SU use on health, psychosocial development, neurocognition, academic achievement, motivation, and emotional regulation; (3) Understand how SU and addiction affect the onset, course, and severity of psychopathology, and vice versa; (4) Identify factors that influence trajectories of SU and its consequences; and (5) Establish how use of one substance contributes to use of other substances. As the largest ethnic minority group in the US, Latinos merit a significant position in the enrollment plan for th ABCD study. The Florida International University (FIU) ABCD site will uniquely contribute to achieving these aims and enhance their impact and significance through enrollment of 900 multi-ethnic Latino youth from South Florida who will be 9 to 10 years old at baseline and substance naïve. The vast majority of our sample will be normally developing, but 30% will have a diagnosis of a disruptive behavior disorder (DBD; i.e., ADHD, Conduct Disorder, or Oppositional Defiant Disorder) to increase likelihood of observing initiation and escalation of SU in the sample and to better understand mechanisms accounting for the strong linkages between DBDs and SU trajectories. Furthermore, multidimensional assessment of cultural factors at the individual, intra-familial, and community level in this unique sample, will allow for characterization of how dynamic relationships between cultural factors (e.g., acculturation and biculturalism) influence SU initiation, escalation, and addiction, as well as underlying mechanisms. Participants will complete six assessment waves during the first 5 years of the study, which includes detailed assessments of SU and various psychosocial, cultural, neuropsychological, and neuroimaging measures. In conjunction with the ABCD Coordinating Center, Data Center, and selected sites, this study will reveal how psychosocial (including cultural), neurocognitive, and neurobiological factors dynamically interact to influence SU trajectories during development from childhood through adolescence and into young adulthood. The findings of the ABCD Study will further NIDA’s mission to apply cutting-edge science to issues of SU and addiction in order to inform policy and improve prevention and treatment.

Public Health Relevance: Substance use often begins and escalates during adolescence, bringing with it many negative consequences. This study will help improve policy, treatment, and prevention of substance use and addiction by studying how brain differences, mental health, cognition, culture, and other psychological and environmental factors change over time and contribute to substance use and addiction.