Current research

General information

Research in the CDN Lab explores the development and neurobiological correlates of cognitive development, particularly learning, memory, and attention during the infancy through adolescence. Our laboratory employs several approaches to studying brain-behavior relations, including behavioral research and structural and functional magnetic resonance imaging (MRI).


MRI SimulatorOur laboratory is equipped with a 128 channel EGI netstation and a SMI Eye Tracking System. We also have shared use of a 3.0 Tesla Siemens research scanner located at the Center for Magnetic Resonance Imaging, which is equipped with IFIS stimulus presentation and response collection devices for functional MRI studies.

Additionally, we utilize a MRI simulator to acclimate children and adults to the scanning environment; this simulator is equipped with an integrated functional imaging system (IFIS) for stimulus display and response recording.


Ongoing projects

Adolescent Brain Cognitive Development (ABCD) Study

The Adolescent Brain Cognitive Development (ABCD) Study is the largest long-term study of brain development and child health in the United States. The National Institutes of Health (NIH) funded leading researchers in the fields of adolescent development and neuroscience to conduct this ambitious project. The ABCD Research Consortium will invite more than 10,000 children ages 9-10 to participate in the study at 21 research sites across the country. Researchers will track their biological and behavioral development through adolescence into young adulthood.

Drs. Bill Iacono and Monica Luciana, both professors in the Department of Psychology, lead the ABCD study at the University of Minnesota. Dr. Iacono and his colleagues at the Minnesota Center for Twin and Family Research specialize in the study of behavioral and brain differences between twins. The inclusion of twins greatly enhances our ability to separate the contributions of genetics and experience to developmental outcomes. The University of Minnesota is one of three data collection sites that are emphasizing the collection of twin data. Our laboratory supports the ABCD project through personnel training and the implementation of functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) data collection. See here for more information about the multisite consortium.

Brain Development Following Adolescent Alcohol Exposure

Adolescence is a period of life during which individuals are highly sensitive to the addictive effects of alcohol. This project uses behavioral and neuroimaging methods to investigate the relationship between adolescent alcohol exposure and brain development. The central question is whether alcohol consumption during adolescence causes changes in the brain that make it more likely that an individual will continue to drink, or whether some adolescents are more likely to experiment with alcohol because of the way their brains have already developed. This research, conducted in collaboration with Drs. Bill Iacono and Steve Malone and their colleagues at the Minnesota Center for Twin and Family Research, looks at behavioral differences between twins at different points in time, in conjunction with MRI data collected in adulthood, to assess differences in brain structure and function related to drinking activity. The participation of fraternal and identical twins is critical because it allows us to use a statistical method known as co-twin control, in which the effects of shared genetics can be modeled to better estimate the effects of experiences that are not shared, such as drinking versus not drinking. For example, among identical twins, any observed differences between them cannot be attributed to differences in genetic endowment. Instead, they must be due to differential genetic expression, which is presumably a consequence of differing life experiences between the two twins.

Data collection for this project has finished, with 1165 individuals having participated. Data post-processing and analysis are ongoing.

Emotional Interference Task Study

Research has suggested that anxiety impairs attentional control and the efficiency of the goal-directed (top-down) attentional system, AND that attention is instead more stimulus-driven (bottom-up), with increased attention to threat-related or negative-valence stimuli. Importantly, during adolescence, when risk for anxiety disorders is elevated, immature cognitive control in the face of emotion distraction is normative. This normative pattern has been attributed to differential maturational trajectories in bottom-up subcortical and top-down prefrontal cortical systems. Understanding the interactions between goal-directed and stimulus-driven processes, particularly when emotions are aroused, may inform current theories of adolescent development broadly, and the heightened risk for anxiety, specifically. In this study, we are bringing adolescents and adults in to the lab to do a simple picture-matching task with other distracting, irrelevant negative or neutral pictures in the background. We measure negative attention bias and vigilance to negative images. In addition, we ask participants to complete a short cognitive measure, a few questionnaires about anxiety, their everyday emotions, their awareness of emotions in daily life, and pubertal development. Initial results show that reported symptoms of anxiety related to slower responding when distractors were negative, suggesting impaired attentional control. We also find more errors when distractors are negative compared to neutral in the adolescent group, which is similar to the pattern seen in adults with anxiety disorders in previous research.

Emotion Regulation in the Transition to Adolescence (ERT)

The primary aim of this cross-sectional study is to understand emotion regulation during the transition into adolescence. In particular, we are assessing whether and how the presence of a mother facilitates the regulation of negative emotion during this age range. Children have been shown to benefit from maternal presence prior to adolescence in both stress and emotion regulation, but mothers are not effective stress buffers in adolescence. The current study uses event-related potentials (ERP) to capture a neural indicator of regulation efficacy. Temporal accuracy in the ERP method allows us to differentiate between immediate emotional reaction and later emotion regulation. Self-report measures of emotional support and coaching in the home will be used to determine whether parenting practices around emotions have an impact on how effectively teens are able to self-regulate.

HCP-D: Lifespan Human Connectome Project: Development

We are excited to be one of four research teams who are working on the Lifespan Human Connectome Project Development (HCP-D) Study. The HCP-D study is a four-year, multi-site project that is funded by the National Institute of Health.

The HCP-D Study will enroll 1,300+ healthy children, adolescents, and young adults (ages 5-21) to discover how different parts of a child’s brain are connected and how these connections (the “connectome”) change as the brain develops. Ultimately, the HCP-D Study aims to collect information that parents, educators, and health professionals can use to enhance the well-being of our children.

If you are interested in learning more about how to participate, please contact us at 612-624-1650 or email us at You can also learn more by visiting

Impact of BDNF Genotype and Early Adversity on Brain Development

The experience of stress, particularly during the early years of life are associated with altered developmental outcomes. In collaboration with colleagues at the University of Minnesota and the Sackler institute we conducted a study that assessed learning, attention, and brain development in internationally adopted youth, which provides a good model of time-limited early life stress. Specifically, the projected used behavioral, neuroimaging, and genetic measures to test the hypothesis that the Vall66Met polymorphism of the BDNF gene moderates the impact of early institutional/orphanage rearing on the structural and functional development of brain systems including the hippocampus, amygdala, and prefrontal cortex. A comparison group of Minnesota youth not internationally adopted also participated in the study.

Data collection for this project has finished. Data processing and analysis are ongoing.

Minnesota Imaging Stress Test in Children (MISTiC)

Responding effectively to stressful situations relies upon a diverse set of individual resources, including recruitment of the neuroendocrine system. One component of this system, the HPA-axis contributes to the body’s response to stress via the secretion of the hormone cortisol. Many studies have investigated changes in cortisol levels when children and adolescents complete stressful situations, like delivering a speech and doing math problems in front of judges. To date, however, little is known about how these responses interact with brain activity. This study uses magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) and concurrent salivary cortisol sampling to investigate neuroendocrine responses to psychosocial stress. Further, a number of self- and parent-report measures will be used to investigate the associations between individual differences such as self-esteem and the strength of caregiving relationships and the stress response.

Mount Hope Resilience Study

Our group has the unique opportunity to investigate the neural mechanisms of risk and resilience in a rich longitudinal dataset collected by our collaborators, Dr. Dante Cicchetti and Drs. Sheree Toth and Fred Rogosch from the Mount Hope Family Center at the University of Rochester, NY. The sample is comprised of individuals from a high-risk, low-SES background (n=120), half of whom have a documented history of child maltreatment. This dataset includes longitudinal behavioral and psychopathology data, as well as MRI brain data from young adulthood. Specifically, we are looking at structural brain data as well as functional brain activation during rest, risk and reward processing, cognitive conflict, and emotion processing. Our work so far has shown that history of child maltreatment is related to hippocampus-amygdala connectivity during an emotion-processing task, whereas resilient adult outcomes (indexed by success on adult developmental tasks, e.g., education attainment, job level and performance, strength of relationships), regardless of threat-related early adversity, is linked to frontolimbic efficiency.