Vanessa Troiani, PhD
Broadly, Dr. Troiani is interested in how innate motivation or homeostatic drives change activity in the brain and subsequently alter attention and perception. Her research aims to understand the behavioral and genetic contributions to atypical motivational circuitry in the brain and how this contributes to psychiatric and neurodevelopmental disorders. Dr. Troiani studies the structure and function of brain regions involved in motivated attention, including reward-processing structures like the amygdala, nucleus accumbens, and orbitofrontal cortex. Her scientific worldview is inherently multidisciplinary, as she is interested in how atypical motivation can manifest in multiple disorders, from autism to obesity to addiction. Dr. Troiani uses a variety of techniques in this work, including psychophysics, eye tracking, structural and functional magnetic resonance imaging, electronic health record analysis, and genomics.
Magnetic Resonance Imaging
Dr. Troiani’s lab utilizes structural MRI to investigate various regions of the brain, including the orbitofrontal cortex (OFC), a region which is the phylogenetically newest part of the brain and shows the most growth relative to our closest primate relatives. This region is thought to be involved in motivational processing and has been implicated in multiple neurodevelopmental and psychiatric illnesses, including schizophrenia, autism, and attention deficit disorder. Her lab's structural neuroimaging work on the OFC has built upon a tracing procedure that identifies patterns that form between three sulci of the OFC and has associated risk schizophrenia and other disorders, such as bipolar disorder and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.
Dr. Troiani has received funding to understand the influence of reward-selective regions, such as the amygdala and orbitofrontal cortex on social attention. This work focused on identifying the network of brain regions that function together to select objects with social relevance (like faces). She found that this network was hypoactive in children diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), which may be part of the reason people with ASD don’t pay as much attention to and learn from the social world. In another segment of her research, she attempts to dissect the separate components that contribute to guiding our attention towards motivationally relevant stimuli. This segment of my work examines whether social rewards drive behavior differently than other types of rewards (like food). Do different types of rewards rely on distinct or overlapping regions of the brain? How do individual differences in brain structure influence the type of rewards we seek out and find enjoyable? Her work suggests that humans have sub-regions in the part of the brain that processes rewards that are dedicated to processing social rewards. In ongoing work, she is exploring how these regions differ in the brains of people with psychiatric and neurodevelopmental disorders.
Genetics and Addiction
Dr. Troiani recently received funding to explore the clinical, genetic, and neurobiological underpinnings of prescription opioid addiction. This work will utilize data from the electronic health record as well as self-report questionnaires to create a prescription opioid abuse risk score. This risk score will then be used to identify novel genes that are associated with prescription opioid abuse. Another part of this project involves analyzing structural brain images that were obtained as part of routine clinical care and using these images for research purposes. We aim to identify brain regions that differ between those that become addicted to opiates vs. those that do not.
Eye Tracking and Pupillometry
Dr. Troiani also uses eye tracking technology to understand how we pay attention to the world around us. Work in Dr. Troiani’s lab suggests that changes in pupil size may reflect differences in the attentional spotlight. When you focus on something small that is hard to read, you squint in order to minimize light coming into the retina in order to help resolve the image. When you go from a dark environment to a light environment, your eyes constrict in order to limit the light that is entering the eye and make it easier for you to see. We show that this pupil physiology is also impacted by changes in attention. For example, when we want to focus on small or local parts of a scene, we constrict the pupil, even in the absence of lighting differences. Ongoing work in the lab is trying to better understand how differences in pupil physiology manifest in neurodevelopmental and psychiatric illness.
- Sabatino DiCriscio A, Troiani V. Pupil adaptation corresponds to quantitative measures of autism traits in children. Scientific Reports. 25 July 2017. Article number: 6476 (2017) doi:10.1038/s41598-017-06829-1. Full Text
- Hyden Zhang,Lauren Harris, Molly Split, Vanessa Troiani, Ingrid R. Olson. Subclinical Anhedonia and Individual Differences in Orbitofrontal Cortex Sulcogyral Morphology. Hum Brain Mapp. Author manuscript; available in PMC 2017 Jul 2. Published in final edited form as: Hum Brain Mapp. 2016 Nov; 37(11): 3873–3881. doi: 10.1002/hbm.23282 Full Text
- Sabatino DiCriscio A., Troiani V. Brief Report: Autism-like Traits are Associated With Enhanced Ability to Disembed Visual Forms. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders. May 2017, Volume 47, Issue 5, pp 1568–1576. Full Text
- Troiani V, Price E, & Schultz RT . (2014, Feb). Unseen Fearful Faces Promote Amygdala Guidance of Attention. Social, Cognitive, & Affective Neuroscience, 9(2), 133-140. Full Text
- Troiani V & Schultz RT . (2013, Jun). Amygdala, Pulvinar, and Inferior Parietal Cortex Contribute to Early Processing of Faces without Awareness. Frontiers in Human Neuroscience., 7, 241. Full Text
- Kohls G, Perino M, Taylor JM, Mavda EN, Cayless SJ, Troiani V, Price E, Faja S, Herrington JD & Schultz RT. (2013, Sep). The nucleus accumbens is involved in both the pursuit of social reward and the avoidance of social punishment. Neuropsychologia, 51(11), 2062-2069. Full Text
- Chevallier C, Kohls G, Troiani V, Brodkin ES, & Schultz RT . (2012, Apr). The social motivation hypothesis of autism. Trends in Cognitive Sciences rel="noopener noreferrer" , 16(4), 231-239. Full Text
- Kohls G, Chevallier C, Troiani V, & Schultz RT . (2012, Jun). Social 'wanting' dysfunction in autism: neurobiological underpinnings and treatment implications. Journal of Neurodevelopmental Disorders , 4(1),10. Full Text
PhD, University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine, 2008-2013
Postdoctoral Research Fellowship, Temple University, 2013-2014