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Hello! My name is Megan Gerlach. I am a junior from Cary, North Carolina majoring in neuroscience and double minoring in chemistry and data science. My passion for neuroscience stems from my interest in the neural circuitry underlying psychiatric conditions. Specifically, I am passionate about the field of neuropsychopharmacology with an emphasis on how factors such as drugs of abuse may increase the risk for psychiatric and neurological condition progression.

For the past year, I have been working as an undergraduate research assistant for the Hantman Lab at the UNC Neuroscience Center. My research focuses on the neural mechanisms in the thalamus and motor cortex as they relate to skillful motor control. As part of my role, I currently implement classical conditioning techniques to train the reach-grab-eat task in mice. As a result, I am able to obtain electrophysiology recordings in the thalamus and motor cortex to determine the neuronal patterns associated with movement. Utilizing the electrophysiology recordings, I also assist with performing optogenetic techniques as well as run fMRI scans to determine the impact of motor cortex inhibition on motor control. Through this experience I have been able to develop an understanding of the neurological mechanisms that influence behavior as well as refine skills that are pertinent to neuroscience research.

As part of the Karen M. Gil internship program, I am working at the Neuro Image Research and Analysis Laboratories (NIRAL) through the UNC Department of Psychiatry. This semester I have been assisting a study regarding early postnatal brain development and autism spectrum disorder. For my project, I have worked to analyze diffusional MRI images of children aged 6 months, 12 months, and 24 months who have a higher likelihood of developing autism spectrum disorder due to familial recurrence. I have specifically focused on white matter developmental changes of the cranial nerves of these infants and children with an emphasis on the optic nerve (CN II) and the trigeminal nerve (CN V).

For the first half of the semester I utilized the software ITK-SNAP to analyze diffusion MRI images. This analysis involved manually tracking the location of the optic nerve and trigeminal nerve for each subject to ultimately create improved brain masks. While I analyzed various types of diffusion MRI images, such as diffusion tensor imaging (DTI) and radial diffusivity (RD), I mainly focused my analysis on the fractional anisotropy (FA) and axial diffusivity (AD) images as I found those to provide the easiest visualization of the optic and trigeminal nerves. I currently utilize tractography techniques to analyze these brain masks through the software 3D Slicer in order to determine their location and trajectory. As I finish up this semester, I hope to analyze the tractography data to determine any apparent developmental changes for the subjects.

Overall, my experience at NIRAL has been incredible so far! I am so grateful to be a part of such a valuable study, especially one that aligns so well with my academic and career interests. I am also so thankful for the guidance of Dr. Styner and Dr. Girault as they help me better develop my knowledge regarding neuroimaging and neuroanatomy. I am excited to continue to expand my skill set in neuroimaging techniques, and I hope to utilize these skills as I progress through my academic and professional career!

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One Response to “Analyzing MRI Images to Understand Early Postnatal Brain Development and Autism Likelihood at UNC NIRAL – with Megan Gerlach”

  1. Neal K. Shah

    Megan, your passion for understanding neurological mechanisms behind conditions like autism through advanced techniques like MRI analysis is remarkable! Assisting impactful studies at UNC NIRAL aligning with your interests is an invaluable experience. As someone empowering research on psychiatric and neurological conditions, I’d be curious if you’ve encountered CareYaya’s platform – matching students studying those fields with families needing elder care support. By working directly with patients, you could see firsthand how research translates to improved outcomes. Please keep us updated on your inspiring trajectory bringing groundbreaking discoveries from bench to bedside!


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