Leading the Vanguard: Rachael Muscatello

Rachael Muscatello headshot

VKC member Rachael Muscatello, Ph.D., is research assistant professor in Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences. Dr. Muscatello’s research examines physiological response profiles during social interaction and the use of physiology in identifying risk factors for psychiatric comorbidities in individuals with autism spectrum disorder (ASD). Dr. Muscatello focuses on using multiple methods to assess psychosocial functioning, including behavioral observation, physiological regulation and reactivity such as heart rate and salivary cortisol, and parent- and self-reporting.

In the interview below, Muscatello shares what inspires her research, what she has learned through her work, and how membership with the Vanderbilt Kennedy Center helps her achieve her goals.

Tell me about your attraction to developmental disabilities research. Do you have a personal connection to disability?

I have always had a passion for science and the brain, and a research seminar my freshman year of undergrad introduced me to the concept of research, and at that point, I was hooked! The idea of having a question about how something works and then being able to actually go about answering that question is extremely exciting and satisfying for me. That is what I love most about studying the autonomic nervous system. I feel like every day we are learning more about how this system influences not only our body but our behavior as well. Research suggests that this influence on behavior may be especially important for developmental disabilities, and especially autism, but there is still so much more work to be done to understand how the system differs in autism and why it might be clinically relevant.

What are your current research interests, and what challenges do they address?

I am fortunate because I get to work as part of a larger team of people in the SENSE Lab, led by Dr. Blythe Corbett. I have worked with Dr. Corbett for many years, both as a trainee and now faculty collaborator, as a part of her team and have had many opportunities to get involved in a broad range of studies with autistic children and adolescents. With that said, I am particularly interested in stress and autism. Specifically, I aim to answer whether we can identify differences in bodily responses to social stress (such as interacting with another person, giving a speech) in autism, and to what extent these bodily responses influence behavior and overall well-being.

The primary method that I use to study stress in autism is a metric known as heart rate variability. The autonomic nervous system, or ANS, controls our fight-or-flight response as well as bodily regulation during rest or recovery. Studying the ANS can tell us about how someone is feeling in the moment. However, there has also been considerable research suggesting that the brain systems that control the ANS also influence social behavior, which is why there is now quite a bit of attention paid to its role in autism. What is exciting is that we can measure this system by calculating the variability, or change, in one’s heart rate over time. Thus, one of the primary questions in my research is to determine whether these differences in the autonomic system are indeed present in autism, and if so, what other physical and psychological factors influence, or are influenced by, this system.

Another area of my research is focused on examining different ways to measure heart rate variability and autonomic responses. In the field, there are a few standard ways in which we calculate this change in heart rate. But as our knowledge of these systems and mathematical techniques continue to expand, there has been a surge in other ways to calculate these measures that might give us more specific information about what is happening in the body. This is valuable because there is a lot of variability or range of different results from one person to the next resulting in mixed findings, something that happens often in autism research. Also, a number of other conditions – many of which co-occur in autism – are often characterized by changes in autonomic response, such as depression and anxiety, to name two. Ultimately, we would like to see if we can use a combination of these measures for distinguishing autism from other clinical conditions.

Do you have a story about a research participant or a breakthrough that illustrates the impact of your work?

I think for me, it’s not about one particular story or breakthrough. Instead, it’s about maintaining perspective and reminding myself of why I entered this field in the first place. Some days are hard: results don’t turn out as we predicted, grants don’t get funded, things like that. But then you have an interaction with a child and their family where they open their heart to you and share their hopes but also their worries. It can be a vulnerable experience to share deeply personal thoughts, and it is an honor when a family trusts us enough to share such feelings. Those are the moments that refocus my perspective and remind me that, in the end, I entered this field because I wanted to make a difference, to be an advocate and a positive light in the best way I know how.

What are your reasons for becoming a Vanderbilt Kennedy Center (VKC) Member? How does the VKC enhance the work you do?

The Vanderbilt Kennedy Center is an enriching, supportive, and collaborative environment with numerous resources available to its members to enhance our work. I have seen firsthand the ways in which the Kennedy Center supports researchers – from their numerous cores, art/graphic support, IT support, and of course, our wonderful communications team! The VKC has also been very supportive in my work, as I have had the pleasure of receiving two IDD-READS grant awards for my research examining the synchronization, or co-activity, of autonomic response in a pair of individuals interacting in a social situation. This support from the VKC has been and continues to be instrumental in the development of this exciting and novel line of research that we hope will provide significant insight into the ways in which the autonomic nervous system can influence social behavior in autism.

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