Aysenil Belger, Ph.D., is the new director of the Frank Porter Graham Child Development Institute. Dr. Belger is a Professor of Psychiatry, Professor of Psychology, and directs the Neurocognition and Imaging Research Lab in the UNC Department of Psychiatry. She also heads the Clinical and Translational Research Core within the Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities Research Center of the Carolina Institute for Developmental Disabilities. She has served as a faculty member at UNC for 18 years.
Her research focuses on studies of the cortical circuits underlying attention and executive function in the human brain, as well as the breakdown in these functions in neuropsychiatric and neurodevelopmental disorders such as schizophrenia and autism. Dr. Belger combines functional magnetic resonance imaging, electrophysiological scalp recording, experimental psychology and neuropsychological assessment techniques to explore the behavioral and neurophysiological dimensions of higher order executive functions.
Her most recent research projects have focused on electrophysiological abnormalities in young autistic children and children, adolescents and adults at high risk for schizophrenia. Her research also examines changes in cortical circuits and their physiological properties in children and adults at high-risk for psychotic disorders.
Dara Chan, ScD, is an Assistant Professor in the division of Clinical Rehabilitation and Mental Health Counseling, in the Department of Allied Health Sciences. Her research interests include community integration and resource use for people with physical and psychiatric disabilities; spatial analysis of accessibility and the environment using Geographic Information Systems (GIS).
Dr. Chan’s research focuses on using Geographic Information Systems (GIS) mapping and Global Positioning System (GPS) data tracking to record the activity locations and time spent in the community of individuals with disabilities during an average week. “We know many adults with ASD and many adults with CP have lower rates of post-secondary education, employment, and even recreational activities, which can contribute to social isolation and low participation in the community. Understanding where adults are going and what activity locations in the community are important may be able to improve service delivery, community based interventions for adulthood, and overall community integration,” she notes.
Dr. Chan was awarded two grants to investigate community participation in adults with autism spectrum disorders (ASD) and a third grant to investigate community participation in adults with cerebral palsy (CP). Historically, research and services directed at developmental disabilities such as ASD and CP have focused on childhood and adolescence, with little attention given to what happens in adulthood. “There is a gap in understanding how activities and service needs change in adulthood for people with developmental disabilities, and how these needs are, or are not, being met,” stated Dr. Chan.
Gabriel Dichter, Ph.D., is a clinical psychologist and tenured Associate Professor of Psychiatry and Psychology & Neuroscience at UNC-Chapel Hill and a faculty in the Carolina Institute for Developmental Disabilities. His research uses behavioral econometrics, eyetracking, electrophysiology, and functional brain imaging to investigate core deficits and treatment response in autism spectrum disorders and affective disorders.
He has been PI of two NARSAD awards addressing reward processing in mood disorders, a Dana Foundation grant investigating neural mechanisms of treatment response in autism, and five NIMH grants, including a career development award focused on neuroimaging treatment effects in autism, studies of imaging and molecular genetic predictors of response to psychotherapy in mood disorders, and currently an R01 focused on reward processing deficits in autism.
Dr. Dichter co-leads UNC’s SPARK (Simons Foundation Powering Autism Research for Knowledge), a research initiative designed to become the largest genetic research study for autism ever undertaken in the U.S. SPARK is a national autism research initiative that will connect individuals with a professional diagnosis of autism and their biological family members to research opportunities to advance our understanding of autism. SPARK’s goal in doing so is not only to better understand autism, but to accelerate the development of new treatments and supports.
Graham Diering, Ph.D., is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Cell Biology and Physiology. Dr. Diering’s research interests include understanding the molecular mechanisms of synaptic plasticity with a particular interest in sleep. Sleep is an essential and evolutionarily conserved process that modifies synapses in the brain to support cognitive functions such as learning and memory. Using mouse models of human disease as well as primary cultured neurons, his lab is applying this work to understanding and treating neurodevelopmental disorders including autism and intellectual disability. The lab focuses on biochemistry, pharmacology, animal behavior and genetics.
Kara Hume, Ph.D., is an Advanced Research Scientist at the Frank Porter Graham Child Development Institute at UNC-Chapel Hill, as well as a Research Associate Professor in the School of Education. Her research interests include Classroom and home-based intervention strategies for young children, school-age children, and adolescents with developmental disabilities; use of structured teaching strategies with individuals with autism spectrum disorders (ASD); professional development and implementation support for special education service providers; identification, review, and evaluation of evidence based practices for individuals with ASD.
She serves as Principal Investigator (PI) and Co-PI on several studies with children, adolescents, and adults on the autism spectrum. She serves as Co-PI for the Center on Secondary Education for Students with ASD (CSESA, http://csesa.fpg.unc.edu/), a five year project developing and implementing a comprehensive high school program for students on the spectrum funded by IES.
Additonal current work includes the Family Implemented TEACCH for Toddlers study (FITT,http://fitt.fpg.unc.edu/) supporting families with toddlers on the autism spectrum funded by Maternal and Children’s Health Bureau, as well as a study to support the independent functioning of adolescents and adults through the use of work systems, funded by the Organization for Autism Research.
Laura Grofer Klinger, Ph.D., is an Associate Professor in the Department of Psychiatry in the UNC School of Medicine and the Director of the TEACCH Autism Program. She oversees TEACCH’s seven regional Centers, Supported Employment Program, and the Carolina Living and Learning Center, an integrated vocational and residential program for adults.
Dr. Klinger serves on the Board of Directors of the International Society for Autism Research (IMFAR). Her research program focuses on learning and memory in individuals with autism and the development of treatment programs based on these learning difficulties.
Dr. Klinger is the Principal Investigator of an Autism Speaks’ funded longitudinal study measuring outcomes in middle-aged adults with autism spectrum disorder who were diagnosed during childhood by the UNC TEACCH Autism program. Approximately 7,000 children with ASD were served between 1965 and 2000 and are now adults. The goal of the study is to survey 400 of these adults and their caregivers.
Dr. Klinger is a member of the Sesame Street advisory panel that developed the character Julia, a muppet with autism. The panel was composed of researchers, clinicians, family members and people with autism.
Patricia Maness, Ph.D., is a Professor of Biochemistry and Biophysics in the UNC School of Medicine. Dr. Maness is a member of the UNC Neuroscience Center, Carolina Institute for Developmental Disabilities, and UNC Curriculum in Neurobiology
Dr. Maness’ research focuses on understanding the molecular mechanisms governing development of the mammalian nervous system; specifically, mechanisms of axon guidance and synaptic targeting and their disruption in neuropsychiatric disorders including schizophrenia and autism spectrum disorders.
Dr. Maness has received national recognition for her research, including the Jefferson-Pilot Award in Academic Research, NIH Career Development Award, Hilton Distinguished Investigator Award from the National Alliance for Research on Schizophrenia and Depression (NARSAD), and Pogue Scholarly Research Fellowship (2015). She has served as a full member of NIH Study Section Neurodifferentiation, Plasticity, Regeneration and Rhythmicity, 2013-2017.
Sheryl Moy, Ph.D., is a Professor in the Department of Psychiatry in the UNC School of Medicine. Her research addresses genetic factors in susceptibility to neurodevelopmental disorders, and preclinical efficacy testing with novel therapeutic agents, using mouse models for psychiatric and neurological conditions. Current studies in the Moy laboratory utilize knockout or transgenic mouse lines with disruptions of NMDA, serotonin, or other signaling pathways as models of human clinical disorders.
With Drs. Gary Duncan and Beverly Koller, she is using mice with reduced NMDA receptor levels as a model of the intrinsic glutamatergic hypofunction associated with schizophrenia. This collaborative group has already determined behavioral and pharmacological profiles in the model, and demonstrated alterations in neural circuitry underlying abnormal social behavior and deficient sensorimotor gating. The aims for Dr. Moy’s present project include characterization of the time course for emergence of schizophrenia-like phenotypes and the evaluation of early intervention with typical and atypical antipsychotic compounds. A second line of research in her laboratory focuses on the C58/J inbred strain as a model for aberrant repetitive behavior and social deficits, relevant to symptoms in autism.
Ben Philpot, Ph.D., is the Kenan Distinguished Professor in the Department of Cell Biology and Physiology, Associate Director of the UNC Neuroscience Center and Co-Director of the UNC NIH T32 Post Doctoral Research Training Program.
Dr. Philpot’s research investigates the molecular, cellular, and neural circuitry mechanisms underlying neurodevelopmental disorders, with the goal of discovering novel therapeutic opportunities. His lab is passionate about identifying treatments for monogenic neurodevelopmental disorders such as Rett, Pitt-Hopkins, and Angelman syndromes. Dr. Philpot’s work is focused primarly on the following projects: (1) the synaptic basis for Angelman syndrome and autism spectrum disorders, and (2) the role of NMDA receptors in neural development. He has published more than 70 articles.
Dr. Philpot is a recipient of the Dr. Claudia Benton Award for Scientific Research, awarded by the Angelman Syndrome Foundation, for demonstrating strong commitment to advancing the scientific knowledge as it pertains to Angelman syndrome. In 2010, he received the Daniel X. Freedman Award for outstanding basic research achievement by a NARSAD Young Investigator. In 2016, Dr. Philpot was the co-recipient of the first gene therapy grant awarded by the Pitt-Hopkins Research Foundation.
Joseph Piven, M.D., is the Thomas E. Castelloe Distinguished Professor of Psychiatry, Pediatrics, and Psychology; Director, Carolina Institute for Developmental Disabilities; Co-Director, UNC NIH T32 Post Doctoral Research Training Program; Director, NICHD Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities Research Center; Director, North Carolina University Center of Excellence; and Director of the NIH ACE Network – Infant Brain Imaging Study (IBIS).
Dr. Piven’s research interests are focused on structural MRI, diffusion tensor imaging of the developing brain in autism and Fragile X, health services for individuals with developmental disabilities, and molecular and family genetic studies of the intermediate phenotypes in autism. His work has emphasized interdisciplinary collaborations in imaging (MRI/DTI), behavioral-family and molecular genetics (linkage and association) studies aimed at elucidating the pathogenesis of autistic syndrome. He has been the principal investigator of two large-scale research centers on autism – an NIH STAART Center and NIH ACE Network; as well as an NICHD-funded P30 Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities Research Center and a T32 post-doctoral research training grant.
Dr. Piven is the author of over 100 peer-reviewed publications on neuropsychological mechanisms, brain/morphology/mechanisms and the genetics of autism and Fragile X Syndrome. He is the Founding Editor-in-Chief of the Journal of Neurodevelopmental Disorders, a publication aimed at promoting interdisciplinary research on the pathogenesis of a range of neurodevelopmental disorders. Dr. Piven was awarded the Scientist Developmental Award for Clinicians from 1992 – 1997 and the NIMH’s Independent Scientist Award in 1998 – 2003.
Jason Stein, Ph.D., is an Assistant Professor of Genetics in the UNC Neuroscience Center. Dr. Stein’s lab explores how variations in the genome change the structure and development of the brain, and in doing so, create risk for neuropsychiatric illness. He studies genetic effects on multiple aspects of the human brain, from macroscale phenotypes like gross human brain structure measured with MRI to molecular phenotypes like gene expression and chromatin accessibility measured with genome-sequencing technologies. His team also uses neural progenitor cells as a modifiable and high fidelity model system to understand how disease-associated variants affect brain development.
Lauren Turner-Brown, Ph.D., is the Assistant Director of the TEACCH Autism Program and an Assistant Professor in the Department of Psychiatry. Her research is focused on gaining a better understanding of the autism phenotype to promote accurate early detection and to develop and test more targeted interventions for individuals with autism. She currently studies early autism screening and different approaches for early autism intervention.
Dr. Turner-Brown specializes in clinical and research experience with early screening, identification and intervention for toddlers, as well as experience training current and future professionals. Some of her current research focuses on examining the efficacy of structured teaching for toddlers and their families in rural communities.
Linda Watson, Ed.D., is a Professor in the Division of Speech and Hearing Sciences in the Department of Allied Health Sciences. Her responsibilities have included providing direct clinical services, supervising graduate students in clinical experiences, serving a term as the Speech-Language Pathology Clinic Coordinator, and teaching courses in the Masters and Ph.D. programs. Dr. Watson’s research interests include Early identification of children with autism; Social, communication, and sensory-motor development in children with autism and other disabilities; Communication intervention with toddlers and preschoolers with or at-risk for autism or other disabilities. She devotes most of her time to autism research, and to mentoring students interested in research, teaching, and clinical projects related to children with autism.
Mark Zylka, Ph.D., is the Jeffrey Houpt Distinguished Investigator, Professor in the Department of Cell Biology and Physiology, and Director of the UNC Neuroscience Center.
Dr. Zylka studies genetic and environmental risks for autism, as well as molecular and brain mechanisms that underlie pain sensation. His lab is studying a number of transcriptional regulators using genome-wide approaches to determine how they contribute to autism. This work includes mechanistic studies with neuronal cultures and autism mouse models.
Dr. Zylka’s pain research is focused on studying a number of lipid kinases, some of which may represent new therapeutic targets for chronic pain. He is also using circuit-based approaches to dissect pain pathways in the periphery and in the brain. One of Dr. Zylka’s key goals is to better understand the molecules and circuits that transduce pain so that new therapeutics can be developed.
From 2006 – 2008, Dr. Zylka was an Alfred P. Sloan Research Fellow and was granted the Klingenstein Fellowship Award in the Neurosciences from 2006 – 2009. In 2007 – 2010, he was the Rita Allen Foundation-Milton E. Cassel Scholar. In 2013, Dr. Zylka was awarded the NIH Pioneer Award.
Julie Daniels, Ph.D., is a professor in the Departments of Epidemiology and Maternal and Child Health in the Gillings School of Global Public Health.
Dr. Daniels' research focuses on prenatal environmental and nutritional exposures that may impact children’s growth, neurodevelopment and overall health. She has created a platform for studying early life exposure to brominated and organophosphate flame retardants, persistent organic pollutants and long-chain fatty acids as they relate to children's health in the Pregnancy, Infection & Nutrition Kids Study.
She also has directed the North Carolina sites of the Study to Explore Early Development and the Autism and Developmental Disabilities Monitoring Network, where she has been heavily invested in programs to better understand the epidemiology of autism spectrum disorder. She is specifically interested how gene expression and environmental exposures interact to alter neurodevelopment. She works toward improved understanding and balanced communication of the role the environment may play in the children’s health.
Mark Shen, Ph.D., is a translational neuroscientist whose research integrates neuroimaging, genetics, and clinical assessment in young children to study the early onset of neurodevelopmental disorders. He is an assistant professor in the UNC School of Medicine, with dual appointments at the Carolina Institute for Developmental Disabilities (CIDD) and the Department of Psychiatry. Prior to his research career, he worked for six years doing clinical work as a behavior therapist for children with autism. As a graduate student, Dr. Shen published the first MRI study to longitudinally measure brain growth trajectories in infants who developed autism. As a postdoc, he replicated and extended these findings in a larger, independent study of infants who developed autism.
Dr. Shen was recently awarded an NIH-funded career-development award (K12) to start his own laboratory and support a multidisciplinary research program on the early pathogenesis of neurodevelopmental disorders. His current research objective is to integrate multiple approaches (neuroimaging, genetics, and clinical assessment) to identify early markers for autism, Fragile X syndrome, and Angelman syndrome. Dr. Shen also collaborates with basic scientists to translate neuroimaging findings in children to mechanistic studies in animal models. Dr. Shen is a founding officer of the Early Career Committee of the International Society for Autism Research (INSAR) and is on the Steering Committee of the Infant Brain Imaging Study (IBIS) Network, an NIH Autism Center of Excellence. Earlier this year, the International Society for Autism Research (INSAR) awarded Dr. Shen their Young Investigator Award.
Stephanie Engel, Ph.D., is an Associate Department Chair and Professor of Epidemiology in the Gillings School of Global Public Health. Her research considers the impact of environmental exposures and innate susceptibility factors on adverse pregnancy outcomes and neurodevelopmental impairment in children.
Engel has led multiple national and international studies of maternal and child epi/genetic variability in relation to prematurity, growth restriction, preeclampsia and gestational hypertension. A new study, in collaboration with investigators at UNC Charlotte, Virginia Commonwealth University, and the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Institute, will examine the relation of the vaginal microbiome with premature delivery.
Dr. Engel is also deeply engaged in children’s environmental health research and has conducted studies of prenatal exposure to environmental chemicals, including phthalates, phenols, PCBs and pesticides, in relation to neonatal, infant and child neurodevelopment and ADHD, as well as child growth and adiposity. She will lead a study team investigating the influence of environmental toxicant exposure on early brain development. The project will leverage an ongoing study of longitudinal brain development () and use state-of-the-art structural and functional imaging technologies and image analysis tools to examine the prenatal and early postnatal effect of toxic environmental exposures. Data from this study may provide key insights into the nature and trajectory of brain development following pre- and postnatal toxicant exposures, a dimension of environmental neurotoxicity that has not been examined. Documenting the effect of exposure to environmental toxicants on early brain development could be a critical factor in influencing future public health policies and regulations.
Clare Harrop, Ph.D., is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Allied Health Sciences and an affiliate researcher with both the Carolina Institute for Developmental Disabilities (CIDD) and the Frank Porter Graham Child Development Institute. She is a developmental psychologist whose research combines behavioral, physiological and electrophysiological methods to understand sex differences in autism and the female prototype of ASD. Dr. Harrop completed her graduate training as part of the Preschool Autism Communication Trial (PACT) and postdoctoral training at UCLA's Center for Autism Research and Treatment. She has published a number of studies documenting subtle behavioral and physiological differences between males and females on the autism spectrum, indicative of potential female protective effects.
Dr. Harrop was recently awarded an NIH-funded career development award (K12) to extend her research to understand electrophysiological markers of the female protective effect as part of the Autism Center of Excellence GENDAAR Network (Gender Exploration of Neurogenetics and Development to Advance Autism Research, PI: Pelphrey, George Washington University). Her research aims to synthesize data from multiple sources to develop targeted and personalized treatments for females on the spectrum. Dr. Harrop also collaborates with Drs. Linda Watson (UNC Speech and Hearing Sciences) and Alana Campbell (UNC Psychiatry) as Co-PI of a multi-method sleep study for infants at risk for neurodevelopmental disorders and Dr. Brian Boyd (Kansas University) as part of a NICHD-funded outcome measure development grant.
Dr. Harrop was selected as an NIH Future Research Leader in 2017.
Kathleen Thomas, Ph.D., is an associate professor at the UNC Eshelman School of Pharmacy in the Division of Pharmaceutical Outcomes and Policy. She is the former Associate Director of the NRSA training program in health services research for pre- and post-doctoral fellows in the Cecil G. Sheps Center for Health Services Research.
Dr. Thomas is a behavioral economist conducting research to enrich the knowledge-base for ways to improve access to care for underserved populations with mental health needs, ranging from minority populations to disability policy and childhood autism. She is deeply engaged in understanding how people live – what motivates them to be transactional around the most important things in their lives – family, health, well-being. Her work focuses on decision-making around the use of health care to promote mental health and emotional well-being. It is grounded in mixed methods, using a variety of primary and secondary data sources including qualitative data, stated preferences, quantitative surveys of health and health behavior, claims and administrative records. Further, her work is guided by stakeholder input and seeks to expand the research and science of stakeholder engaged work.
Dr. Thomas has been successful in securing funding to support her research from PCORI, RWJF, HRSA, NIH, CMS, CDC, AHRQ and NCDHHS as well as T32 research training support from AHRQ and NIMH. She is recipient of the John Eisenberg Excellence in Mentorship Award from the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality and the Steven M Banks Award for Mentorship from the American Public Health Association.
Martin Styner, Ph.D., is an Associate Professor of Psychiatry and Computer Science. Dr. Styner has an extensive background in diffusion tensor imaging, anatomical structure and tissue segmentation, structural brain morphometry, modeling, deformable registration, atlas building. He has also strong experience in image analysis of human, non-human primate, canine and rodent image analysis.
As co-director of the UNC Neuro Image Research and Analysis Laboratory and associate director of the Developmental Neuroimaging Core in the Carolina Institute for Developmental Disabilities at UNC, he oversees medical imaging research projects in the field of neurodevelopment with applications to normal development, autism, fragile-X, fetal alcohol syndrome, Krabbe, schizophrenia, abuse exposure and muscular dystrophy. The current NIH-funded R01 on macaque brain development illustrates his research focus and strengths. This project generates a publicly available resource comprised of a developmental macaque brain MRI database with the corresponding novel computational toolbox for brain atlas building.
Laura Politte, M.D. is a Clinical Assistant Professor in the Department of Pediatrics and the Carolina Institute for Developmental Disabiltiies. Dr. Politte earned her undergraduate and medical degrees at the University of North Carolina - Chapel Hill before moving to Boston and completing a residency in Adult Psychiatry and a fellowship in Child and Adolescent Psychiatry at Massachusetts General Hospital and McLean Hospital. In 2011, Dr. Politte joined the Lurie Center for Autism, an affiliate of Mass General Hospital for Children, where she had a clinical practice, was a co-investigator for a number of clinical trials, and taught rotating Harvard Medical School students and pediatric and child psychiatry residents from MGH. Dr. Politte also served as a consulting psychiatrist for two Community Service Agencies in the Boston area and for the consultation-liason child psychiatry service at Newton Wellesley Hospital in Newton, MA.
Dr. Politte moved back to North Carolina in October 2014 and joined the faculty of the Carolina Institute for Developmental Disabilities (CIDD) at UNC. Her clinical interests include neurodevelopmental disorders, genetic syndromes, and taking care of people with developmental disabilities across the lifespan. Her research interests include psychopharm clinical trials and new drug discovery for autism spectrum disorders. She will be maintain her primary appointment with CIDD but will also be working with the Department of Pediatrics.