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Excellence in Neuroscience Training at AU: Anila D’Mello, BCaN Graduate and Current MIT Postdoc

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Anila (middle) is hooded during graduation by her mentor Stoodley (right).

When applying to doctoral programs as an undergraduate at Georgetown University, I searched for a program that would further my goals of becoming a neuroscience professor and conducting research in neurodevelopmental disorders. During my five years as a doctoral student in the Behavior, Cognition, and Neuroscience (BCaN) program at American University, I was able to conduct cutting-edge neuroscience research, make lasting friendships, and establish a fantastic foundation for my career.

As a doctoral student in Professor Catherine Stoodley’s Developmental Neuroscience lab, I studied the role of the cerebellum in typical and atypical cognition. Until recently, the cerebellum was thought to contribute solely to motor behaviors. However, research in Stoodley’s lab and by others has shown that the cerebellum actually contributes to both motor and non-motor behaviors including language and social cognition. My doctoral research focused on the role of the cerebellum in autism spectrum disorders. Autism is a neurodevelopmental disorder that is characterized by impaired social communication and the presence of repetitive or stereotyped behaviors. Altered neuronal activity in the cerebellum and altered structure in certain cerebellar subregions are some of the most consistent findings in studies of autism.

As a doctoral student, I was interested in examining how the cerebellum contributes to autism symptoms. To do this, I took advantage of structural and functional magnetic resonance imaging (MRI)—non-invasive techniques that allow us to measure structure and function within the human brain by taking pictures of the brain while a participant lies inside an
MRI scanner.

At first, I used structural imaging analyses to identify regions of the cerebellum that differentiated individuals with autism from typically-developing individuals. We found that language and social regions of the cerebellum were smaller in individuals with autism, and that decreased grey matter in these regions was associated with increased symptom severity. However, for my dissertation, I was interested in determining whether changing activity in the cerebellum could affect whole-brain networks that are often disrupted in autism. To study this, I used cutting-edge neuromodulation techniques such as transcranial direct current stimulation (tDCS) that allow us to transiently alter activation in the brain in a non-invasive manner. I combined tDCS with functional neuroimaging to observe and measure how brain activity was changed by neuromodulation.

Our goal was to assess whether tDCS to language and social regions of the cerebellum could affect connections between the cerebellum and the rest of the brain. Our previous work established that these regions were structurally different in individuals with autism. We combined tDCS with functional neuroimaging in a group of healthy adults, and found that altering neuronal activity in these cerebellar regions changed connectivity patterns between the cerebellum and regions of the brain implicated in autism. Throughout the project, we were able to collaborate with animal researchers and well-known autism researchers who corroborated our findings in both animal models of autism and children with autism. We hope that these findings will further elucidate the role of specific cerebellar subregions to autism symptoms.

The encouragement and resources available to me in Stoodley’s lab, the opportunities for collaboration, and the support of the BCaN faculty and program, have been pivotal in steering my career choices and interests and providing me with the tools necessary to succeed in science. Funding provided from Stoodley and the College of Arts and Sciences enabled me to travel to national and international conferences, present my work, and publish findings in peer-reviewed journals. In addition, I learned how to operate in a diverse scientific environment, surrounded by scientists who studied everything from obesity to cognitive control to drug addiction. Most importantly, since leaving AU, I’ve maintained contact with many of the Psychology Department faculty members, graduate students, and even undergraduate students for whom I was a teaching assistant.

Now, as a post-doctoral associate in the lab of John Gabrieli at MIT, I continue to use neuroimaging to examine the neural basis of neurodevelopmental disorders such as autism. The knowledge of brain networks and imaging techniques that I developed during my doctorate has allowed me to apply neuroimaging to other neurodevelopmental disorders, including dyslexia (reading disorder), dyscalculia (math disorder), and ADHD. Thanks in part to the grant writing experience I developed as a doctoral student, I was recently awarded a fellowship from the Simons Center for the Social Brain at MIT to study how individuals with autism adapt to rapidly changing social, perceptual, and linguistic stimuli in the environment. In the future, I hope to continue studying the neural basis of neurodevelopmental disorders and eventually become a faculty member and conduct research of my own. As I continue to build upon the foundation established by my graduate experiences, I’m incredibly grateful for the nurturing scientific community and research opportunities I had while at American University.