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Published:

August 1, 2014
 
Tagged: Derner School of Psychology, Day Residue

A Dose of Neuroscience at Derner: Interview with Dr. Lars Ross

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Dr.-Lars-Ross

By Seth Pitman, M.A.

Dr. Lars Ross received his Ph.D. from City College in 2008 and came to Derner in Fall, 2013. He teaches Psychological Statistics to Undergraduates and Biological Bases of Behavior in the Doctoral program. Seth Pitman spoke to Dr. Ross about his research and his new role here.

SP: Tell us a bit about how you ended up here at Derner.

LR: After graduating from the Cognitive Neuroscience program at CCNY, I worked for two years as a postdoctoral fellow at Temple University and the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia with Ingrid Olson. Under her fantastic supervision, I learned neuroimaging to do research in social neuroscience, which was a new field of research for me. After two great years in Philly, I moved back to NYC to build up the neuroimaging operation of my former supervisor and mentor John Foxe, who had just moved his lab to the Albert Einstein College of Medicine. After almost four years as a postdoc it felt right for me to move into a teaching position. I am sometimes asked by colleagues and friends if I had any concerns about fitting in at a place with such a strong orientation toward psychodynamic practice. I usually answer that, although my specialization is in the field of cognitive neuroscience, I still identify as a psychologist and think like one (or so I think).

SP: Some of your research has focused on multisensory integration (MSI) deficits in Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD). Have you been impressed by any findings, either in your own work or from that of others?

LR: Well, maybe I should give you a little bit of background on multisensory integration since I cannot assume that everybody knows what is meant by that. I will tell you why I think that it is important to take a look at this mechanism in ASD from a scientific and clinical perspective. The way we think is very much dependent on the way we perceive the outside world and vice versa. Our senses are tuned to different forms of energy such as light and sound, pressure, or substances that we breathe in through the air. In our experience, each of these sensations is unique and there appears to be little commonality between them. There are regions in the brain that are specialized to deal with information from each sensory modality.

Yet, we constantly integrate information from different senses without any conscious effort and mostly without awareness. This means that the information from different sensory channels must converge somehow, somewhere, in the brain – a process that we refer to as multisensory integration. Integrating information from different senses provides us with information above and beyond what would be available if the different senses were treated in isolation. Many individuals with ASD are easily overwhelmed by complex stimulation, and actively try to shut them out. This led to the idea that one of the mechanisms that might be broken is the integration of sensory inputs. The idea has been around for decades, but the scientific evidence for its existence is still very sparse, a gap that I am determined to help fill. Nowadays, ASD is often conceptualized as a disorder of “brain connectivity” which is very compatible with the MSI-deficit notion because integration relies on the connections between different brain regions. Together with my coworkers, I have recently shown that children with ASD do indeed have such a deficit when asked to watch a speaker on the screen uttering words embedded in various levels of noise. Under these conditions, healthy individuals typically experience the most benefit from seeing the speaker. What was surprising to us was that this deficit disappeared in ASD children after around 12 years of age. What does this mean in regard to the brain connectivity idea in ASD? How could a deficit in a process that is presumably so fundamental disappear in a relative short period of time? It certainly underscores the plasticity of MSI, which we had previously shown to develop over an extended period of time into the teenage years. Integrative abilities are likely to be shaped by changes in the social environment. From this perspective, it could mean that in ASD these basic mechanisms underlying brain connectivity are not broken, just delayed, which is a good reason to be hopeful for the success of targeted appropriate intervention. This is also where our research leaves the “basic” realm and becomes relevant for clinical applications, which is why we think the term “translational” is appropriate to describe our approach.

SP: Which of your research projects are you currently most excited about?

LR: Since I have been talking about multisensory integration, I might as well continue with this topic. One problem that investigators struggle with is the heterogeneity of the disorder in regard to the presentation of symptoms, and some question whether they are an expression of the same underlying disorder or represent different disorders altogether. Our data is absolutely preliminary, but it seems like there is something very interesting that we overlooked.

When we looked at typically developing children, we found that girls appear to be better at integrating visual and auditory speech information. This does not seem entirely surprising given that differences in social communication abilities between males and females do not seem to be just a cliché, but are supported by empirical evidence. They emerge early, some suggest, due to a biological origin and might be shaped by socialization. Next, we compared ASD boys and girls (note that there is a 4:1 sex ratio in ASD) and found girls to be better here too. This is unusual, because girls that wind up getting diagnosed with ASD are usually lower functioning in many regards than ASD boys.

We finally tested a number of “unaffected” siblings of individuals with ASD and found the same pattern again: Boys’ performance was pretty much right in between that of typical and ASD males whereas female unaffected siblings were not distinguishable from female controls. While these findings don’t resolve the nature-nurture debate in ASD or whether there are different autisms for boys and girls, it adds a level of complexity in showing that some ASD symptoms and traits might be gender specific. It could be an important piece of the puzzle in regard to the heterogeneity of the disorder and underscores the importance of considering gender differences when investigating ASD.

SP: Do you have any thoughts on what appears to be the growing field of neuropsychoanalysis?

LR: Before I arrived at Derner, I had not heard about neuropsychoanalysis. To be fair, since my arrival at Derner I have had too little exposure to this field to be comfortable making general judgments. However, frankly, what I have seen has raised some concerns for me. One possible reason for my lack of exposure to this topic might be that, to my knowledge, neuropsychoanalysis has not contributed in any significant fashion to the field of neuroscience or to what we know about the brain. From what I’ve heard about neuropsychoanalysis it appears to be an approach that merely takes more or less established evidence and concepts from the field of neuroscience and uses this to draw analogies to psychoanalysis. Drawing analogies between our current understanding about reward circuits or networks involved in affective processing in the brain and psychoanalytic concepts, such as libido and attachment, unfortunately is not more than conjecture. Having spent some time doing research in social neuroscience, I found myself surprised during a recent presentation to hear that some cortical regions that have been associated with general social processing were labeled “attachment centers” or part of an “attachment network”. This strikes me as premature given how little we still know about the specific roles of brain regions associated with social cognition and affect. In short, I do very much welcome that “neuro-psychoanalysts” are acknowledging that the psychological mechanisms in their theory must have a biological foundation and that the intention is to open up to the neuroscientific community. However, there has to be more to the approach than cherry picking neuronal systems that appear to be compatible with psychoanalytic theory and considering them its biological foundation. Perhaps I am overly critical and there are good things underway and I remain curious to see how this new field evolves.

SP: What would you hope Derner students might take away from your class, Biological Bases of Behavior?

LR: The most obvious would be that I want to give students a working knowledge base about what we know about how the brain “works” and a basic understanding of the methodologies that are used to investigate brain function. I would like to give them the ability to approach neuroscientific topics, make informed judgments, and be able to distinguish what might be a scientific advancement relevant to their practice from the hype of which there is so much of these days. I hope my students will develop open-minded attitudes around neuroscience and prevent the development of all the usual justifications for why it might be unnecessary, counterproductive or even wrong altogether to consider biological mechanisms in clinical practice.

I also hope to prevent the dualistic thinking that draws a line between “organic” and “psychological” phenomena as if there was a clear distinction between them. While in many cases dualistic concepts might be upheld merely for the sake of convenience, I think it is counter-productive in many regards. It can promote insular thinking, and hinder collaboration and advancement in our understanding of psychological processes, apart from the obvious danger of misguiding clients and future generations of students.

Published August 2014 in Day Residue the Derner Institute Doctoral Student Newsletter
 
Tagged: Derner School of Psychology, Day Residue