National Institute of Health Awards SU Psychologist $2 Million Grant

Natalie Russo

Natalie Russo

The statistics are staggering and the impact on children and their families can be overwhelming. But, one psychologist in The College of Arts and Sciences is preparing to embark on a significant research project that may generate insights that will positively impact children with autism spectrum disorders (ASD). Natalie Russo, who joined SU’s Department of Psychology in 2011, was recently awarded more than $2 million from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to study ASD, a group of developmental disorders that affects one out of every 88 children.

“I am truly honored to have the opportunity to study ASD further and hope the findings of my research can help us better understand how individuals with an ASD experience the world,” says Russo, an expert diagnostician of children with autism and neuroscientist. “I hope this work will contribute to earlier diagnosis and to tailored interventions that can help mitigate the sensory issues that some individuals with ASD report as interfering with their day-to-day functioning.”

The goal of Russo’s research is to discover how both strengths and weaknesses in the manner in which individuals with ASD process the sensory world interact with one another by looking at behavioral symptoms and performance on sensory tasks, as well as the brain physiology underlying task performance.

“This research has the potential to uncover objective biomarkers that can be used to diagnose ASD, and also to identify subgroups of individuals with autism who might benefit from different types of interventions,” says Russo. “I think it is important to uncover not only weaknesses but also strengths that are unique to individuals with an ASD, and to help individuals with an ASD capitalize on those strengths to help mitigate some of the more difficult aspects associated with this diagnosis.”

The NIH, part of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, is the nation’s medical research agency. Russo’s grant is funded through the “Biobehavioral Research Awards for Innovative New Scientists” program, designed to provide a highly select group of early stage investigators funding to conduct innovative research and explore new approaches to address pressing challenges in mental health research.

“This prestigious grant award from NIH provides strong recognition of the strength and innovation of Professor Russo’s research program,” says Peter Vanable, chair of the psychology department. “It’s a huge honor for our department and for our school psychology program. The award extends our department’s outstanding track record of success in obtaining NIH grant support.”

Russo holds a Ph.D. from McGill University and completed her clinical internship at University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where she trained with faculty at the TEACCH Autism Program.