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BYU neuroscience student Erin Kaseda holds a 3D model of a brain printed in the fMRI lab she works in. (Credit: Nate Edwards/BYU Photo)

Despite a schedule that includes balancing an aggressive course load in neuroscience, a double minor in psychology and theatre arts studies, managing a research lab and teaching a fine arts class at a boarding school for teenage boys with developmental disabilities, BYU neuroscience student Erin Kaseda still manages to conduct cutting-edge research that wins international awards.

Follow us today on Instagram to see Erin take over our story and show you a typical day in her life as a BYU student as part of #MyViewFromBYU.

Kaseda recently won the MacLean Scholar Award, created to allow neuroscience trainees to attend the American Psychosomatic Society Annual Meeting and interact with leading experts in the field of neuroscience. Selection for the award is based primarily on outstanding research or research potential that links measures of brain function to medical outcomes.

This year’s meeting was in Seville, Spain, where Kaseda presented on her work with BYU psychology assistant professor Wendy Birmingham, which examines neurological pathways that are related to marital relationship quality and emotional responses to marital conflict.

Only three students worldwide were selected to receive this award this year. Kaseda was the only undergraduate.

Kaseda recently spoke with University Communications’ Jon McBride to discuss the details of her research, what it was like presenting in Spain and what lies ahead after graduation.

Jon McBride: Will you elaborate more on what your research is addressing?

Erin Kaseda: Prior research has consistently shown that supportive relationships are associated with better health outcomes. For most adults, their spouse is a main source of social support. The quality of relationships is also important in terms of health outcomes. Much of the prior research has looked at positivity and negativity in marriage relationships as opposite ends of a single spectrum, but both positivity and negativity can co-exist in a marriage — we call these ambivalent relationships. Those with low levels of negativity and high levels of positivity we call supportive relationships. We wanted to look at two specific things in our research: first, we wanted to examine the differences in how ambivalent and supportive spouses react neurologically to a conflict task, and second, to look at the specific neurological pathways by which these relationships may impact health. 

JM: Where and how do you study this, exactly?

EK: Although we know that supportive relationships are connected to better health outcomes, the mechanisms by which that happens still aren’t completely understood. In our study, we were examining the vagal pathway, which includes the limbic system of the brain (amygdala and hippocampus). To look at specific physiological responses, we had participants fill out self-report measures of their marriage quality and then engage in a 10-minute conflict discussion task with their spouse. This discussion task was filmed and then played back to them while they were in the MRI scanner. We obtained both structural and functional MRI scans of their brains while they viewed their conflict discussion task.

JM: Can you talk about the results that you’ve found so far?

EK: I presented some preliminary results from the functional MRI analysis in Spain. We found that in a whole brain analysis, individuals who viewed their spouse as ambivalent had decreased activation in the right amygdala.  The amygdala is a brain structure associated with emotional conflict processing. We also did an ROI analysis with the right amygdala and hippocampus and found again that participants with more ambivalent marriages had decreased activation in those areas.  These findings suggest that individuals who have more ambivalent spousal relationships may be attenuated to spousal conflict, so they may be putting less effort into conflict resolution and emotional conflict processing. The amygdala dampening in these individuals also has long-term health implications, because decreased amygdala response is associated with depression and other negative health outcomes.

JM: What was it like being able to present this at such a prestigious international event?

EK: Being at the conference in Spain was incredible. The highlight was definitely being honored with the MacLean Scholar Award and being able to attend a luncheon with the winner of the Paul D. MacLean Award, Dr. Hugo Critchley, and other professors and graduate students who are all doing important research in neuroscience and psychosomatic medicine. It was absolutely amazing to be surrounded by people who are passionate about health and neuroscience and hear about all the innovative work they are doing. Another highlight was being able to see the beautiful architecture and history of Seville, where the conference was held.

JM: With a prestigious award on your resume, and still just a junior, what are your future plans?

EK: Right now I manage the Health and Behavior Research Lab and am doing fMRI research [functional MRI] at the BYU MRI Research Facility, and I teach a fine arts class at a boarding school for teenage boys with developmental and non-verbal learning disabilities. I am very passionate about working with children. I am going to graduate in April 2018, and I hope to start a clinical neuropsychology PhD program in the fall of 2018. Ultimately, my goal is to be a pediatric clinical neuropsychologist and work with children with developmental disabilities like autism, ADHD and Down syndrome. I hope to do both clinical and research work in my career, and continue researching the neural mechanisms that influence improved health outcomes in children.