Vanessa Troiani, PhD
Broadly, I am interested in how innate motivation or homeostatic drives change activity in the brain and subsequently alter attention and perception. Within the clinical realm, I would like to understand how altered social motivation is encoded in neural signals and how differences in neural structure and connectivity manifest in atypical social cognition. My interest in autism stems from my undergaduate research experience at the University of Michigan. While there, I used histological and MRI techniques to study microanatomical structure and cortical organization in Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). While in graduate school in Neuroscience at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine, my thesis work examined the Social Motivation Hypothesis of Autism, namely how the typical brain manages to pay more attention to people than anything else in the environment.
The brain is an incredible organ that learns by gathering information from our environment from the moment we are born. There is actually so much information that our brain uses strategies to filter extraneous details in order to capture the most important bits of information: Scientists refer to this filtering as selective attention. My graduate work focused on identifying the network of brain regions that function together to select objects with social relevance (like faces). I found that this network was hypoactive in children diagnosed with ASD, which may be part of the reason people with ASD don’t pay as much attention to the social world. In another segment of my research, I attempt to dissect the separate components that contribute to guiding our attention towards motivationally relevant stimuli. This segment of my work examines whether social rewards drive behavior differently than other types of rewards (like food). Do different types of rewards rely on distinct or overlapping regions of the brain? How do individual differences in brain structure influence the type of rewards we seek out and find enjoyable?
As a Postdoctoral Research Fellow at Temple University, I started to examine some of these hypotheses in college students. My work suggests that humans have sub-regions in the part of the brain that processes rewards that are dedicated to processing social rewards. In future work, I hope to explore how these regions develop and whether malfunctioning of these regions contribute to the impaired social cognition trajectory seen in ASD.
Since I grew up in Central PA, I was ecstatic to hear about the location of ADMI. As a cognitive neuroscientist studying neurodevelopment, my primary research method is functional magnetic resonance imaging, which is a technology that is mainly accessible in large university settings. To have this resource available at ADMI is truly incredible. When I realized that I could perform cutting edge brain research minutes from my hometown, I jumped at the opportunity. I’m incredibly excited to be an investigator at ADMI and I hope my research can contribute to ADMI’s innovative vision for the future of understanding and treating developmental disorders.