My name is Briana Bernstein, and I am a senior from Charlotte, North Carolina studying Psychology with minors in Neuroscience and Medical Anthropology. This past summer, I worked in Dr. Ed Levin’s lab at Duke University Medical Center examining how prenatal exposure to diazinon, an organophosphate pesticide, affects brain development in rodents and may alter behavior later in life. This research broadened my perspective on how the field of neuroscience can be advanced to understand health risks. My experience and passion for this field led me to my current Gil Internship with the UNC Early Brain Development Study (EBDS) through the UNC School of Medicine.
The EBDS is a longitudinal research study led by Dr. John Gilmore that aims to map brain development from birth to early adolescence and look for biomarkers that predict psychopathology. The study compares data from healthy children, twins, and children at risk for developing psychiatric disorders, such as schizophrenia, to identify risks early in development and intervene in these cases. I am interested in the relationship between brain structure and function, so I divided my time between working at the Frank Porter Graham Child (FPG) Development Institute and the Neuro Image Research and Analysis Laboratories (NIRAL). FPG works directly with families and administers behavioral assessments to children, while NIRAL uses imaging software on structural MRIs from these same children to study the volumes of white matter, grey matter, and cerebral spinal fluid in different brain regions.
My tasks at FPG primarily include observing behavioral testing and inputting behavioral data. At NIRAL, I work on brain masking structural MRI scans, which involves separating the brain from surrounding tissue. Additionally, I have taken on a data analysis project in which I am in the process of choosing a specific brain region to determine if there are correlations with certain scores from the behavioral assessments. Some assessments I am learning about include the Connors Comprehensive Behavior Rating Scales, which helps assess attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder in children, and the Perceived Stress Scale, which measures the perception of stress in parents. Examining these assessment scores to discover connections with volumes of white matter, grey matter, and cerebral spinal fluid is important in understanding how to detect an increased risk for psychiatric disorders. I have seen friends and family members suffer from psychiatric disorders, so if this research leads to early detection methods, I believe it is worth investigating.
Now that I have a deeper understanding of how the different parts of the study interact, I am excited to start exploring data in hopes of finding brain-behavior associations with the help of postdoctoral fellow Dr. Rebecca Stephens. I am grateful for the opportunity to be a part of the EBDS as well as the Gil Internship Program. This experience has solidified my interest in applying for graduate school to study Behavioral Neuroscience. I hope that my work focusing on connecting behavioral data with structural MRIs will help support the overall goals of the EBDS study. I am excited to take on more responsibility as the semester progresses and learn more about the brain-behavior relationship in preparation for a career in research.