Understanding neurodevelopmental disorders is only possible starting from the study of typical development which has its foundation in the relationship children build with their significant caregivers.
A reciprocal relationship is indeed necessary for the acquisition of cognitive as well as social-affective skills.
The study of typical and atypical developmental trajectories has always been the cornerstone of my research work encompassing different disciplines: psychodynamics, developmental clinical psychology, neuroscience.
Recently, my work has primarily focused on Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD), the most common cause of atypical development, which are characterized by a peculiar brain malfunctioning that, besides many other psychological domains, affect early caregiver-child interaction. Research findings in this area have represented the empirical basis for the development of prevention and rehabilitation interventions that are carried out and evaluated at the Laboratorio di Osservazione, Diagnosi e Formazione (ODFLab) that I have directed for more than 10 years. ODFLab hosts PhD students with very different backgrounds, allowing for the integration of clinical research with sophisticated technologies and psychophysiological measures.
Parenting of children with ASD
In the literature, it is widely established the fundamental role of involving the parent within the intervention for children with ASD.
The importance of parents’ role in extending and maintaining the improvements the children gained during the therapy has been demonstrated.
The change of the quality of parental exchange occurring within the intervention sessions has a strong influence on the development of social and cognitive skills. Researches highlighted the effects of specific interventions involving direct parents by analysing child development profiles, or by analysing tools commonly used in the diagnosis of the disorder (ADOS-2), this kind of tools analyse and observe only child’s characteristics and not the quality of the exchange between adult and child.
This research line examines the efficacy of early intensive intervention with young children with ASD assessed through specific observational code; we measure dyadic emotional availability and attunement using semi-structured observation of parent-child interaction (or therapist-child interaction.
The study of parenting of children with neurodevelopmental disorders is completed by the investigation, through interviews and questionnaires, of the role of the representational domains of parenting.
Finally, through neuroimaging and psychophysiological techniques, we also investigate parental responsiveness to children’ communicative stimuli, such as crying, which can show atypical features in children with ASD.
ASD – Wearable sensors and synchrony
A fundamental characteristic of the ASD is a relevant impairment in dyadic relationships.
This difficulty is present since the earliest stages of development and creates the basis for a critical impoverishment of the experiences available to the child: due to anomalies in interests and feedbacks, the amount and quality of learning occasions is jeopardized.
The aim of this research line is to use psychophysiological indexes (skin conductance, ECG) collected by means of wearable sensors to get continuous information about synchrony during dyadic interactions.
Such information could enrich in an innovating and unique way our knowledge about the dynamics of social-affective exchanges between children with ASD and their parents or therapists.
Moreover, these synchrony measures could be used as indexes of treatment efficacy and improvements in parent-child relationship quality in a spectrum of disorders in which biological deficits alter the optimal development of dyadic relationships.
Motion, emotion and ASD
The human being is constantly in interaction with other conspecifics, and the comprehension of other people’s mental states, intentions and emotions is fundamental to react properly.
Face is one of the main channel used to express emotions, but the body language has been shown to be as important as faces, and sometimes even more, to convey emotional signals.
The Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) is a syndrome characterized by impairments in social interactions (DSM 5), and recent findings suggest that these difficulties could be partially explained by deficits in body motion perception and comprehension.
Indeed these impairments appear early in life and are associated to a lack of specialization of neural areas that process body motion information.
Research in ODFLab is addressed to investigate developmental trajectory differences in emotion recognition between TD and ASD.
To this aim, we study the ability in understanding emotional facial and bodily expression, both dynamic and static, in children and adults with ASD.
Moreover, we used non-invasive brain stimulation techniques (TMS) to investigate the neural basis of emotional bodily expressions recognition in healthy adults.
School inclusion of children with ASD
Educational institutions are considered as an optimal environment for the treatment of individuals with ASD.
In these contexts through peer-to-peer interaction, it is indeed possible to facilitate the acquisition of different cognitive skills while improving of social abilities.
By the way, a specific preparation of teachers is required to structure didactical activities in ways that promote participation and cooperation of children with ASD in an inclusive approach.
Within this research area, action-research in education has been carried out in the last decades in collaboration with the IPRASE-Trentino.
ASD: GUT e Brain
Several studies have been trying to explore a possible role for gut microbiota in ASD, supported by the high incidence of gastrointestinal disorders among ASD children and by the now well recognized existence of the brain-gut-microbiota axis.
Nevertheless, results about alterations in gut microbiota composition and/or activity in ASD are to date strongly contrasting.
In this research line we explore factors which are relevant for children’s gut flora development, such as type of delivery, nutritional history and medical history as well as factors that may affect the present composition of microbiota, such as the current diet and the presence of gastrointestinal disorders. We aim to understand whether there are differences related to the above mentioned aspects between ASD children and typically developing children and among ASD themselves, considering differences in cognitive level and severity of autistic traits. Furthermore, through metaproteomics and bioinformatics techniques, we aim to assess microbiota activity in individual with ASD and evaluate it in light of ASD phenotype, nutritional habits, gastrointestinal disorders and genetic proximity.
Demonstrating the existence of a different microbiota composition in ASD, or at least in a subgroup, could allow to identify a biomarker of a possible development of ASD and to design preventive interventions, including probiotics intake. Moreover, it could help to better understand the molecular mechanism underlying these disorders.
DSA E ASD – Tecniche di riabilitazione con tecnologie
Several studies showed that a focused training could take to improvements Executive Functions (EFs).
However, these products could result to be not so stimulating, negatively influencing the motivation and so, their efficacy.
For these reasons, our project is focused on the development and evaluation of Skies of Manawak, a videogame for the cognitive training of EFs.
Considering the positive results in the preliminary evaluation with typically developing children, we are carrying on researches with children that have neurodevelopmental disorders, particularly developmental dyslexia.
Prof. Simona de Falco
Prof. Gianluca Esposito
Prof. Andrea Caria
Dr Nicola De Pisapia
Dr Arianna Bentenuto
Dr Noemi Mazzoni
Angela Pasqualotto, PhD student
Fabio Filosofi, PhD student
Isotta Landi, PhD student
Michele Giannotti, PhD student
Dr Ilaria Basadonne
Eunice Kennedy Shriver, Child and family research Unit, NIH, USA (Dr. Marc H. Bornstein)
Laboratorio di Psicometria, Dipartimento di psicologia, Università della Campania
Fondazione Bruno Kessler (FBK) (gruppo MBPA – responsabile C. Furlanello)
Istituto per le arti grafiche Artigianelli- Trento
Laboratorio InterAction- DISI- UniTN
Ospedale Pediatrico Bambin Gesù di Roma (unità Microbioma Umano – responsabile L.Putignani; Unità Disturbi dello spettro autistico- resp. Giovanni Valeri)
Istituto Superiore della Sanità- PROGETTO NIDA (resp. Maria Luisa Scattoni)
Istituto Scientifico “Stella Maris” (IRCSS) Pisa (resp. Filippo Muratori)
Fondazione Trentina Autismo
- Suwalsky, Xueyun Su, Du Xiaoxia, Kaihua Zhang, Linda R. Cote, Nicola De Pisapia, and Paola Venuti (2017) The Neurobiology of Culturally Common Maternal Responses to Infant Cry. In Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences
- Noemi Mazzoni, Christianne Jacobs, Paola Venuti, Juha Silvanto and Luigi Cattaneo (2017) State-dependent TMS reveals representation of affective body movements in the anterior intraparietal Journal of Neuroscience 22 June 2017, 0913-17; DOI: https://doi.org/10.1523/JNEUROSCI.0913-17.2017
- Pasqualotto A., Fattorelli L., Venuti P. (2017) “ DISLESSIA E DISORTOGRAFIA: l’individuazione di prerequisiti trasversali attraverso attività di screening delle abilità di letto-scrittura”. Dislessia. Ed. Erickson. Trento
- Venuti P., Bentenuto A., Cainelli S., Landi I., Suvini F., Tancredi R., Igliozzi R., Muratori F. (2017) A joint behavioral and emotive analysis of synchrony in music therapy of children with autism spectrum disorders. Health Psychology Report, 5(2), 162–172. doi: 10.5114/hpr.2017.63985).
- Bentenuto A., De Falco S., Venuti P. (2016), “Mother-child play: a comparison of Autism Spectrum Disorder, Down Syndrome, and Typical Development.” Frontiers in Psychology, section Psychology for Clinical Settings
- Rigo P.; De Pisapia N., Bornstein M., Putnick D.; Serra M., Esposito G., Venuti P. (2016) “Brain processes in women and men in response to emotive sound”. Social Neurosciences
- De Pisapia N, Serra M, Rigo P, Jager J, Papinutto N, Esposito G, Venuti P, Bornstein MH. (2014) “Interpersonal Competence in Young Adulthood and Right Laterality” in White Matter. Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience. 6, 1257-1265,
- Mastrogiuseppe M, Capirci O, Cuva S, Venuti P. (2014). “Gestural communication in children with autism spectrum disorders during mother-child interaction”. Autism 1-13.
- Ozturk Y, Riccadonna S, Venuti P. (2014) “Parenting dimensions in mothers and fathers of children with Autism Spectrum Disorders”. Research in Autism Spectrum Disorders 8:1295-1306.
- P. Venuti ; A. Caria ; G. Esposito ; N. de Pisapia ; M.H. Bornstein ; S. de Falco (2012) Differential brain responses to cries of infants with autistic disorder and typical development: an fMRI study. RESEARCH IN DEVELOPMENTAL DISABILITIES. 33,6, pp 2255- 2264
- Venuti, P. Bentenuto A. (2017) Studi di caso. I disturbi dello Spettro Autistico. Erickson. Trento
- Bornstein M.H., Venuti P. (2013) “Genitorialità: fattori biologici e culturali dell'esser genitori”. Bologna: Il Mulino
- Venuti P. (2012) Intervento e riabilitazione nei disturbi dello spettro autistico. Roma: Carrocci
Research activities have been funded by:
National Institute of Health, Prin, Miur; Provincia Autonoma di Trento, Comune di Rovereto, Progetti Europei (EIT), IPRASE, Trentino, Università di Trento