Researcher Profile: Caitlin Hudac, Ph.D.
Families are the core of everything that we do! We connect with families to understand the true needs of people with genetic changes – it is vital that scientists meet and listen to families.Caitlin Hudac, Ph.D.
Caitlin Hudac received her Ph.D. in developmental psychology from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln in 2014 where she used electroencephalography (EEG) to study the infant social brain. She then completed postdoctoral training at the University of Washington where she studied the autistic social brain to learn more about the link between the brain and genetic causes of autism.
While an assistant professor at the University of Alabama, she launched the BioGENE Study, which started as a 3-month road trip to collect data around the U.S. before coming to the University of South Carolina in 2022. She currently directs the Brain Research Across Development (B-RAD) Lab, which is continuing the BioGENE Study, as well as other research with people of all ages using brain-and-brain “hyperscanning” research methods. This research technique involves simultaneously monitoring the brain activity of multiple individuals who are interacting with each other.
We interviewed Caitlin about her latest research projects and her collaboration with Simons Searchlight.
How did you first start collaborating with Simons Searchlight?
As part of my postdoc, I worked with Raphe Bernier, Ph.D., and Sara Jane Webb, Ph.D., on the TIGER and ZEBRA studies. These studies used a deep phenotyping “genetics-first” approach to study the brain and behavior in autistic youth and youth disruptive genetic changes associated with autism. We worked closely with Simons Searchlight (then SVIP) to recruit and share the results of our work with many of the family groups.
How have you and your team used information collected from Simons Searchlight families in your projects?
It was difficult to continue our deep phenotyping approaches during the COVID-19 pandemic. We used the behavioral data collected from Simons Searchlight to contextualize the results we were seeing from our brain research.
What type of data did your team use, and was it associated with a specific genetic change?
Although we have plans to continually extend the BioGENE Study, we started with generous funding from the FamiliesSCN2A Foundation and the GRIN2B Foundation – so most of our work has focused on those two genetic changes. Because we focus on individual phenotypes, linking to behavioral data in Simons Searchlight has been incredibly helpful to our work.
How has using Simons Searchlight data aided in our understanding of the gene changes associated with autism and developmental delay?
The Simons Searchlight data includes participants with rare genetic disorders, so it is important to centralize and share as much information as possible. Not only does the behavioral data help us to understand our brain data, but it can also point out areas of similarity across these disorders.
From a researcher’s perspective, how important is it for families that have rare genetic disorders to become involved in a registry study?
Families are the core of everything that we do! We connect with families to understand the true needs of people with genetic changes – it is vital that scientists meet and listen to families. This has guided our research in many ways, including scientific directions and how we disseminate our results. Our work will be most powerful if it addresses the community-identified needs.
What are your future plans for collaborating with Simons Searchlight or using Simons Searchlight data?
We are currently looking for additional funding sources to expand our BioGENE Study. Because genetic changes are often quite rare, little is known about the changes across development. We would like to launch a natural history study that includes, and perhaps centers on, brain development, as well as thinking through ways to ease the burden of participation for families. We also see that there is a need to understand other key biological processes, such as sleep, and we hope that translational work with our neuroscience colleagues will help to answer some of these questions.
What kind of research did you do at Simons Searchlight’s 2022 Baltimore Conference (HIVEP2, MED13L, SETBP1, CSNK2A1)?
We partnered with Nicolò Pini, Ph.D., and Jennifer Bain, M.D., Ph.D., of Columbia University to complete brain testing using EEG for participants with CSNK2A1, HIVEP2, MED13L, and SETBP1 genetic changes. We had over 40 participants enroll and complete a session that involved wearing a wet EEG net, watching short videos, and listening to sounds for about 25 minutes.
What was the experience like for you? Do you have any highlights that you would like to share?
We had a fantastic time! Because of our partnership, we had two rooms set up to see double the number of participants. Several groups were so excited about the opportunity that they organized and sent families to us that originally hadn’t signed up. We also put EEG nets on some parents and teddy bears to help demonstrate what the session is like.
How has this experience affected your research moving forward?
We are working on finalizing the analyses that we plan to share with the family groups ahead of the manuscripts being submitted for publication. This was the first time that we worked with many of these groups, and it was great to get to know everyone – and see some really great dance moves!
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