Blythe A. Corbett, Ph.D. : SENSE Lab Director
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.
- Google Scholar Profile: http://scholar.google.com/citations?user=4OhnLOIAAAAJ&hl=en
- Research Gate Profile: http://www.researchgate.net/profile/Blythe_Corbett
Rachael A. Muscatello, Ph.D., Research Assistant Professor
Dr. Muscatello is a Research Assistant Professor in the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences and the SENSE Lab. Dr. Muscatello completed both her PhD and postdoctoral fellowship with Dr. Corbett, graduating from the Vanderbilt Neuroscience Graduate Program in 2020 and completing her postdoctoral fellowship in 2022. Rachael’s research interests include examining multiple methods to measure physiological stress and multiple stress systems, such as salivary cortisol (Hypothalamic-Pituitary-Adrenal axis) and heart rate variability (Autonomic Nervous System). She is further interested in the relationships between stress and age, puberty, anxiety, depression, and social functioning in youth with ASD. Rachael also maintains interest relevant clinical experiences, and she continues to gain expertise in diagnostic and neuropsychological measurements.
Dr. Muscatello earned her B.S. in Neuroscience from the College of William and Mary in 2015, where she worked as a student research assistant investigating the effects of fetal alcohol exposure on zebrafish learning and memory. Rachael is a 2017 Autism Speaks Weatherstone Predoctoral Fellow for her project “Physiological Response Patterns in Children with ASD to Predict Internalizing Symptoms”.
Outside of the lab, Rachael enjoys seeing new movies and playing with her cats, Minnie and Stewart while updating their social media profiles.
Current publications: https://scholar.google.com/citations?user=zdorGKsAAAAJ&hl=en
Mark E. Klemencic, Clinical/Translational Research Coordinator
Mark is a research coordinator in the SENSE Lab whose primary role involves the facilitation of two of Dr. Corbett’s Randomized Controlled Trials (RCTs) funded by the National Institute of Mental Health (R01 Investigating Social Competence in Youth with Autism: A Multisite RCT and R33 Enhancing Social Competence in Adults with ASD: A Pilot RCT). Both of these projects examine neuropsychological treatment outcomes associated with SENSE Theatre®, a novel theatrical-based intervention program.
Aligning with the goals of this program–and with a background in theatre himself–one of Mark’s primary research interests involves the efficacy of performance-based treatment modalities in targeting social communication deficits in individuals with ASD across the lifespan. Additionally, Mark is interested in the endocrinological facets of ASD, particularly as they relate to social stress.
Prior to joining the SENSE Lab, Mark obtained a B.S. in Psychology, with a neuroscience focus, from The Pennsylvania State University in 2018. In the near future, Mark hopes to pursue a doctoral degree in clinical psychology.
Rachel Calvosa, Research Assistant
Rachel Calvosa is a recent graduate of Vanderbilt University, where she received a Bachelor’s of Science in Child Development and Neuroscience. Her academic interests include developmental psychology and brain development, especially in the context of Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). Rachel has worked with the SENSE Lab as a student for two years, and is grateful for the opportunity to learn more about psychosocial aspects of ASD as well as interventions for adolescents and young adults. As an advocate for the positive impact of performing arts, she especially loves seeing how SENSE Theatre® utilizes the power of performance to help build connections and confidence.
Rachel eventually plans to pursue a PhD in Neuroscience or Developmental Psychology, and she cannot wait to help contribute to research here at Vanderbilt.
Jennifer H. Pilkington, M.S., CCC-SLP, Speech/Language Pathologist
Jennifer is a certified speech/language pathologist with over 30 years of experience at Vanderbilt University Medical Center/Vanderbilt Bill Wilkerson Center specializing in Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD), particularly communication development in very young children. She has been involved with the SENSE Lab since 2017 when she was presented with an opportunity to collaborate with the Lab through the Department of Hearing and Speech Sciences. As the result of this collaboration, she has become interested and passionate about ASD across the lifespan. Even though, Jennifer retired in December, 2019 from full time employment at Vanderbilt, she retained her Clinical Faculty status and continues to work consultatively in the Lab. She collects and codes research data and participates in the intervention study, SENSE Theatre®.
When Jennifer is not working, she can be found with her French Bulldogs (Piper and Stella) and buzzing around the skies with her husband who is an avid aviator. She loves to be outdoors with family, enjoys a variety of genres of music, reading and continuous learning.
Christina Harkins, M.Ed., Clinical Psychology Intern
Christina is a predoctoral clinical psychology intern at the Vanderbilt University Medical Center and an enthusiastic member of the SENSE lab! She is a Ph.D. candidate in Clinical and School Psychology at the University of Virginia and specializes in the assessment of autism and treatment of co-occurring conditions in adolescents and adults on the spectrum. Within the SENSE lab, Christina conducts neuropsychological assessments for several ongoing research projects and participates in the SENSE Theatre® intervention studies for adolescents and adults with autism. Christina’s clinical research interests include the impact of co-occurring conditions (e.g., ADHD, anxiety, depression) on autism symptom presentation and treatment outcomes, sex/gender differences in autistic symptoms, and novel social skill interventions for individuals with autism. Christina has worked extensively with youth and adults with autism and co-occurring conditions across the home, school, community, and clinical contexts. During her doctoral training she completed a one-year interdisciplinary training fellowship through the Leadership Education in Neurodevelopmental and Related Disabilities (LEND) program and was involved in several autism research projects. Prior to her doctoral training, Christina received her Master’s degree in Applied Behavioral Analysis and coordinated clinical research studies for individuals with autism and rare genetic disorders on the Neurobehavioral Treatment Discovery Team at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital.
When Christina is not in the lab, she enjoys mountain biking, hula hooping, making wildflower arrangements, exploring local music, and listening to audiobooks!