Harnessing Uniqueness: MNLEND Fellow Leverages Neuroscience Advances to Explore Brain-Behavior Links
Left: Damien Fair, co-director of the University of Minnesota’s Masonic Institute for the Developing Brain and director of the Developmental Cognition and Neuroimaging Lab. Right: Sanju Koirala, a MNLEND fellow at the Institute on Community Integration. Fair is an advisor to Koirala in the DCAN lab.
Differences in individual brain structure and function – even within groups of people already diagnosed with autism, for example – create challenges for scientists trying to study how it contributes to functions such as language and social behavior.
Thanks to large neuroimaging databases now available at the University of Minnesota’s Masonic Institute for the Developing Brain, however, scientists are beginning to discover patterns that could point to more personalized and effective strategies for regulating emotions, or developing social cognition, among other skills.
Damien Fair, co-director of the MIDB and director of the Developmental Cognition and Neuroimaging Lab , and Sanju Koirala, a MNLEND fellow at the Institute on Community Integration, recently shared their work in neuroimaging studies with the 2022-23 MNLEND fellowship class. MNLEND stands for the Minnesota Leadership Education in Neurodevelopmental and Related Disabilities, an interdisciplinary leadership training program spanning more than 16 disciplines across the University. Fair is an advisor to Koirala in the DCAN lab.
Using her neuroimaging work as her MNLEND project this year, Koirala is coupling this work with the MNLEND curriculum. The MNLEND experience exposes fellows to a broad cross section of academics, practitioners, families, and people with neurodevelopmental disorders, and it has enriched Koirala’s doctoral studies in developmental psychology at the Institute of Child Development.
“I want to use research to step into people’s shoes and see how they explore and how their brains might respond differently,” she said. “That’s where the lessons from LEND come in – in not just assuming how someone with autism might see the world differently than you do. It’s been a great experience for me.”
Explaining her research, she often compares brain topography to actual geographic maps. She is from Nepal and compares the navigational challenges of a landlocked country to a place like Denmark, which has more access by sea to other ports. Similarly, variation in the spatial layout of brain networks might affect information processing, resulting in differences in behavior.
“Instead of studying binary categories of people with autism and a control group, I want to look overall at how social cognition is different among individuals and how certain regions of the brain are larger or smaller based on social cognition scores,” she said. “Then, we can develop more personalized support for people.”
While her current work focuses on imaging studies of children who are 9 or 10 years old, she aspires to study how these brain networks develop over the life course, she said.
“We can now categorize people not as a binary group – those with and without autism – but by individual differences in their brain networks,” said Koirala. “In LEND we talk a lot about person-centered thinking and this is how I adopt that in my research. Not everybody is the same.”