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

Blythe Corbett Ph.D.Dr. Corbett joined the Vanderbilt faculty in August 2010 and is currently a 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 Theatre®, 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 Theatre® 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

Jessica Schwartzman, M.S., Clinical          Psychology Intern

Jessica is a clinical psychology intern at the Vanderbilt University Medical Center in the Autism and Lifespan Development track and a recent member of the SENSE lab. She is working to complete her PhD in Clinical Psychology in the Child and Family Emphasis from Palo Alto University. While on internship, Jessica receives clinical training in diagnostic and neuropsychological assessments for youth with Autism and other pediatric populations, as well as training in individual and group interventions for youth and adults from diverse populations. Her research interests in the lab include investigating adolescent and parent experiences in Autism, and the impact of stress on psychosocial functioning for adolescents and family systems. Jessica earned her B.S. in Psychobiology from UCLA in 2012 and worked in developmental disabilities research at UCLA before beginning graduate school in 2015. In graduate school, Jessica worked in research at the Autism and Developmental Disabilities Research Program (ADDRP) at Stanford University on several early intervention studies and developed a resilience training for parents of children with Autism for her dissertation. Her clinical training in graduate school included evidence-based interventions for youth and families and training in neuropsychological assessments, with an emphasis in culturally-sensitive interventions and assessments for Latinx populations.

When Jessica is not working, she can be found in the outdoors with her dog, Sasha, attending concerts, and trying new restaurants in town.

Email: Jessica.schwartzman@vumc.org

Sara Ioannou, M.S., Research Assistant/Multisite Project Coordinator

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

Mark E. Klemencic, Research Assistant II

Mark is a recent graduate of The Pennsylvania State University, where he completed a Bachelor of Science degree in Psychology (Neuroscience Option) and a minor in biology. Mark’s interest and academic background in developmental psychology and neurobiology, especially as they relate to Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), led him to the SENSE Lab, where he is excited to participate in the research of the psychobiological underpinnings of and interventions for adolescents with ASD. Additionally, Mark is thrilled to participate in Dr. Corbett’s innovative SENSE Theater® program, where his commitment to the performing arts and individuals with ASD intersect.

Mark plans to apply to Ph.D. programs in clinical psychology within the next few years and is grateful for the opportunity to contribute to and learn more about ASD research here at Vanderbilt.

Contact: mark.e.klemencic@vumc.org 

Paige Schlagbaum, Research Assistant II

Paige earned her B.S. in psychology from The Ohio State University with minors in neuroscience and sexuality studies. After college, Paige worked in both clinical and research positions at Nationwide Children’s Hospital with youth with acute emotional and behavioral concerns. Concurrently, she became a Registered Behavioral Technician and provided Applied Behavior Analysis therapy to youth with ASD. Paige is excited to continue pursuing her passion for research, and expand upon her clinical work within the ASD population. Paige plans to pursue a Ph.D. in clinical psychology in the future, and is grateful for the opportunity to learn and grow through the SENSE Lab.

Contact: paige.schlagbaum@vumc.org

Former Students from Recent Years

Kale Edmiston, Ph.D.

Kale Edmiston, Graduate Student

Dr. Kale Edmiston received his PhD from the Vanderbilt Neuroscience program in 2015 and now works as an assistant professor in the Department of Psychiatry at the University of Pittsburgh. 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 involved 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. During his time at Vanderbilt, Kale served as 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.