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Amanda Morris

A Deeper Study

Friday, December 18, 2020

An Oklahoma State University researcher is using advanced brain imaging to better understand the relationship between parents and their teenagers.

Dr. Amanda Morris, OSU Regents Professor in human development and family science and the George Kaiser Family Foundation Endowed Chair in Child Development at OSU-Tulsa, examines adolescent and parent brain images during common experiences such as resolving conflict and overcoming mistakes.

She believes identifying patterns between parental and adolescent brain images may one day become a predictor for mental health and development.

“We are the only place we know of in the world doing this kind of research,” Morris said. “We are interested in exploring the importance of relationships in development and how parentadolescent relationships are organized and displayed in social interactions.”

While past research has studied either parents or their children, Morris believes this is the first research to monitor parents and adolescents simultaneously during a shared activity using neuroimaging.

So far, Morris has found adolescents’ brain activity largely follows parents’ brain activity, suggesting parents are highly influential in adolescent emotional regulation and higher-level thinking.

Eventually, Morris hopes to use brain imaging to show parents the effects of different actions on their children’s mental health.

“Being able to understand mental health disease and what’s happening in the brain can influence treatment effects and treatment options,” she said. “We’re still a little far from that, but we’ve made many strides, particularly around depression and anxiety.”

Morris’ work is made possible through an OSU partnership with the Laureate Institute for Brain Research in Tulsa. As a developmental scientist, her past work primarily relied on surveys and observations to compare parents and children. Now, the institute’s functional magnetic resonance imaging machines enable her to monitor multiple individuals’ brain activities at once to identify regions of the brain activated during parentadolescent interactions that could be indicators for relational and mental health.

“The brain and social relationships are really the foundation for brain development,” Morris said. “It doesn’t just happen in a box. Being able to understand how parent interactions influence child mental health will enable us to say, ‘Hey, when you do this, this is what your child’s brain looks like.’”

Larger data sets will expand on Morris’ brain imaging approach.

In addition to her parent-adolescent research, Morris is contributing to a separate research as part of the Adolescent Brain Cognitive Development Study funded by the National Institutes of Health.

Nearly 12,000 individuals at 22 research sites across the U.S. are receiving biennial brain imaging scans for 10 years, creating a data set large enough to hopefully provide a framework for comparing individuals’ brain activity and understanding overall brain development.

“Just like height and weight charts for infants, we are working to develop brain charts to monitor brain growth and describe what typical brain development looks like,” Morris said. “We want to research mental health problems and their relation to brain development.”

Her work is part of the larger OSU Brain Initiative, as NIH funding has launched what many researchers call the “age of the brain.”

The OSU Center for Health Sciences in Tulsa soon will have fMRI machines of its own, opening the door for more research.

Additionally, a cross-disciplinary minor in neuroscience and a graduate certificate in neuroscience are set to provide students more opportunities.

“Students have told us they are really interested in neuroscience, and we want to provide them more opportunities to explore this exciting field,” she said. “It’s also really important in terms of the work we are doing to have students to support it.”

Morris and other researchers also plan to study the role of trauma on youth brain development at the Center for Integrative Research on Childhood Adversity, established through an $11 million NIH grant.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and Child Trends, Oklahoma has some of the highest rates of early life adversity, and Morris plans to use OSU-CHS’s fMRI equipment to monitor neurodevelopment over time of infants born to mothers with opioid addiction.

She also recently wrote a book related to childhood adversity, co-authored with Dr. Jennifer- Hays Grudo and published by the American Psychological Association.

“As a developmental scientist, social and environmental factors are so important to mental health,” Morris said. “This is an opportunity to monitor their impact on brain activity and show firsthand the value of our work."

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