SENSE Lab: Social Emotional Neuroscience Endocrinology


Participate in Research

Blythe A. Corbett, Ph.D. : SENSE Lab Director

Blythe Corbett, PhD Dr. Corbett joined the Vanderbilt faculty in August, 2010 and is currently an Assistant Professor in the Department of Psychiatry and member of the Vanderbilt Kennedy Center. She is a clinical psychologist specializing in pediatric neuropsychology. Dr. Corbett was previously a clinical scientist and faculty member at University of California, Davis Department of Psychiatry and the M.I.N.D. Institute from 2001-2010 before joining the Vanderbilt team. 

Dr. Corbett’s young academic career as a clinician-scientist has been a journey from behaviorism to neuroscience, from the macro to the micro, to better understand, inform and treat children with neurodevelopmental disorders.  Dr. Corbett is currently exploring the neural substrates and biological processes related to the perception, interpretation and reaction to socioemotional, information in children with autism using a variety of research methods.

A central hypothesis of Dr. Corbett’s studies is that dysregulation of the amygdala may contribute to various impairments in autism including increased response to potentially threatening stimuli, deficits in implicit and explicit emotion perception and limited social cognition. Functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) permits the in-vivo study of underlying brain regions involved in these processes. As part of the SENSE research program, structural MRI and fMRI probes of socioemotional functioning suggest reduced activity of the amygdala and other limbic brain structures involved in social processing. Structural findings also suggest differences in the size of the amygdala that may be related to age, stress and level of social functioning.   

In parallel, Dr. Corbett has been examining emotional functioning as it pertains to stress-responsive neurobiological systems, including the Limbic-Hypothalamic-Pituitary-Adrenocortical (LHPA) axis. Across a series of studies Dr. Corbett and her collaborators have found differences in the diurnal regulation of cortisol in children with autism which include elevations in the evening related to poor response to change throughout the day.  Additionally, her studies have shown significant elevations in cortisol in response to various social and nonsocial stimuli when compared to typically developing children of the same age and gender.

Dr. Corbett is committed to designing an affective neuroscience program of translational research that will lead to enhanced assessment and treatment of the social-emotional capabilities of children with autism and other neurodevelopmental disorders. As part of this commitment, she founded and developed SENSE Theatre, a nonprofit intervention program that utilizes theatre and behavioral science methods to enhance the social and emotional functioning of children with autism and related neurodevelopmental disorders. 

Contact Information

  • Phone: (615) 936-0280
  • Email:
  • Mail: PMB 40, 230 Appleton Way, Nashville, TN 37203

Lydia Qualls, Research Assistant

Lydia Qualls Lydia Qualls received her B.A. in Honors Psychology with a concentration in Psychopathology and Clinical Neuroscience at Vanderbilt University in May 2013. While at Vanderbilt, Lydia was involved in many different labs, starting in Dr. Bumni Olautunji’s Emotion and Anxiety Lab as a sophomore. She began working with Dr. David Zald and his post-doctoral fellow, Dr. Greg Samanez Larkin in summer 2011, when she received a grant through the Vanderbilt Undergraduate Summer Research program and began investigating the effects of dopamine on decision making across the lifespan. This eventually turned into her senior honors thesis, developed as a part of a collaboration between Dr. Zald and Drs. Scott Wylie and Daniel Claassen, on the effects of dopamine in reward learning in Parkinson’s patients with Impulse Control Disorders. Lydia has presented posters for the CEPO Undergraduate Poster Session at the Southeastern Psychological Association Regional Conference in 2012 and 2013, and received a Psi Chi Regional Research Award at the 2013 conference for her poster related to her honors thesis. She also co-hosted a continuing education workshop entitled “Goodbye Asperger’s, Hello Autism Spectrum Disorder,” about the changes made to the Autism diagnoses from DSM-IV-TR to the DSM-V, at the Southeastern Psychological Association Regional Conference in 2014.

In the SENSE Lab, Lydia coordinates the Peer Interaction study, which looks at stress, play, and neurological differences in children with and without an Autism Spectrum Disorder from ages 7-13. She recruits participants, schedules study visits, gives neuropsychological assessments, oversees implementation of the peer interaction protocol, does the behavioral coding of the peer interactions, and helps with data processing. Lydia is also very involved with the SENSE Theatre Intervention, where she helps with visit coordination, gives neuropsychological assessments, oversees implementation of playground peer interactions, does the behavioral coding, and helps with data processing for the research visits, as well as serving as a counselor during the SENSE Theatre intervention. Additionally, Lydia acts as the advising research assistant on the Adolescent Peer Interaction Study. She is currently an author on two peer-reviewed publications relating to work she has done on the SENSE Lab with other manuscripts in preparation.

Lydia plans to apply to doctoral programs in Clinical Psychology to start graduate study in the fall of 2015.

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Ali Byrne: Research Assistant

Ali Byrne Ali Byrne graduated with Honors from Vanderbilt University in May 2014 with a B.A. in Medicine, Health, and Society and a minor in Neuroscience. Ali’s interest in developmental disorders stemmed from her experience growing up with a neighbor with autism. During her sophomore year, Ali began working as an Undergraduate Research Assistant for Dr. Corbett in the SENSE Lab. As an undergrad, Ali helped coordinate the Peer Interaction study, which looks at stress, play, and neurological differences in children with and without an Autism Spectrum Disorder from ages 7-13. Ali also volunteered as a Counselor in the SENSE Theatre Intervention during the winter of 2014. She tremendously enjoyed getting to know the participants and watching them gain confidence throughout the program.

Senior year, Ali completed her Honors Thesis on the “Factors Associated with Later Age Autism Diagnosis in Hispanic Children: A Focus on the Pediatrician-Parent Relationship.” Ali’s fluency in Spanish and background with the Hispanic Culture allowed her to work closely with Spanish-speaking families in the Nashville area. During the study, Ali was asked to speak on two Spanish Radio Stations to raise awareness about autism, as well as recruit participants for her study.

Currently, Ali is coordinating the SENSE Theatre Intervention program, which aims to improve the social communication in children with ASD. Specifically, Ali is recruiting for SENSE Theatre, scheduling participants, and carrying out study protocol for the NIMH funded project. Additionally, she will be a counselor for the upcoming winter SENSE Theatre intervention. Ali looks forward to gaining further clinical and research experiences during her time in the lab.

Lastly, Ali is applying to medical school and hopes to pursue a career in Developmental Pediatrics.

Contact Information: Phone: (615) 322-4132 Email:

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Kale Edmiston, Graduate Student

Kale EdmistonKale Edmiston is a graduate student in the Vanderbilt Neuroscience PhD program. He obtained a B.A. in liberal arts from Hampshire College in 2007. He then worked as a research assistant at The Yale Mood Disorders Research Program. It was at this time that Kale became interested in the neural correlates of adolescent social and emotional development. His dissertation research in the SENSE lab involves using functional magnetic resonance imaging to investigate the relationship between brain activity, stress, face processing, and social behavior in adolescents with autism spectrum disorders.

In addition to his neuroscience research interests, Kale is committed to supporting the career development of underrepresented groups in the sciences. He is also an advisory member of the Vanderbilt Program for LGBTI Health with an interest in healthcare access for transgender people. When he is not hard at work on these projects, he enjoys spending time with his partner and their two dogs. For a list of current publications, please see:

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Blythe Valencia, Graduate Student

Blythe Valencia Blythe Valencia received her B.A., with a double major in Psychology and Medical Humanities, from Baylor University, in Waco, Texas in May 2013. During her time at Baylor, Blythe Valencia became very involved in autism research and intervention programs, including play therapy and social skills groups, which focused on developing age appropriate social skills for children with an autism diagnosis.

Blythe Valencia is a current masters student in the Child Studies program at Vanderbilt University. Her research interests include the role of peer interaction in the social development of children with an autism diagnosis, as well as the effects that such interactions have on the development of empathy and prosocial behaviors in typically developing peers. As a SENSE lab member, Blythe will be assisting in implementing the peer interaction protocol and conducting detailed behavioral coding. In addition to this, Blythe Valencia is excited to assist in SENSE Theatre, which will provide the opportunity for her to mesh her many years of musical and dance training with her passion for research.

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Varik Harris

Varik HarrisVarik Harris is currently a senior at Hume-Fogg academic high school. He is currently interning in the SENSE Lab as part of his coursework for the School for Science and Math at Vanderbilt, a program sponsored by the Center for Science Outreach at Vanderbilt University. In addition to helping with various lab studies, he has undertaken his own project comparing the stress levels of children with autism spectrum disorders with parental reports on social functioning, which earned first place at the annual Center for Science Outreach joint symposium. He has also served as a peer during the 2014 SENSE Theatre summer camp, and looks forward to helping the camp and the lab grow in the future. He plans to submit the research he has been conducting to the Siemen’s science and math competition, as well as the Intel Science Talent Search.

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