Emily Kilroy PhD
Faculty Mentor: Lisa Aziz-Zadeh PhD
Research Lab: The A–Z Lab
Emily Kilroy is a postdoctoral scholar at USC and is collaborating with UCLA on a study investigating the relationship between gut microbiota and social processing in ASD. Emily completed her undergraduate education at Purdue University where she earned bachelor’s degrees in Behavioral Neuroscience (with a concentration in Psychology). She received her Master of Science degree in Developmental Psychopathology from the University College London and Yale University with a focus on Autism Spectrum Disorder at the Yale Child Study Center. She continued her Autism research at UCLA at the Brain Mapping Center under the supervision of Dr. Danny Wang and Dr. Mirella Dapretto before entering a Ph.D. program in Occupational Science (with a concentration in Neuroscience) investigating, with her advisors Dr. Lisa Aziz-Zadeh and Dr. Sharon Cermak, social and motor interactions in the motor system during action observation using neuroimaging and behavioral methods. Emily’s research interest is in advancing the understanding of typical development, autism spectrum disorders (ASD) and other related developmental disabilities (i.e., developmental coordination disorder). Her work focuses on identifying and clarifying how autism develops, how the brain is involved, and how social and motor skills interact in ASD. Emily collaborates with scientists across the country and employs approaches such as neuroimaging and behavioral assessment to better understand ASD and use this information for the service of families.
Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)
in Occupational Science
2018 | University of Southern California
Master of Science (MS)
in Developmental Neuroscience and Psychopathology
2010 | University College London
Bachelor of Arts (BA)
in Behavioral Neuroscience (Concentration in Psychology)
2008 | Purdue University
Kilroy, E., Harrison, L., Butera, C., Jayashankar, A., Cermak, S., Kaplan, J., Williams, M., Haranin, E., Bookheimer, S., Dapretto, M., & Aziz-Zadeh, L. (2021). Unique deficit in embodied simulation in autism: An fMRI study comparing autism and developmental coordination disorder. Human Brain Mapping, 42(5), 1532-1546. https://doi.org/10.1002/hbm.25312 Show abstract
A deficit in pre‐cognitively mirroring other people's actions and experiences may be related to the social impairments observed in autism spectrum disorder (ASD). However, it is unclear whether such embodied simulation deficits are unique to ASD or instead are related to motor impairment, which is commonly comorbid with ASD. Here we aim to disentangle how, neurologically, motor impairments contribute to simulation deficits and identify unique neural signatures of ASD. We compare children with ASD (N = 30) to children with Developmental Coordination Disorder (DCD; N = 23) as well as a typically developing group (N = 33) during fMRI tasks in which children observe, imitate, and mentalize about other people's actions. Results indicate a unique neural signature in ASD: during action observation, only the ASD group shows hypoactivity in a region important for simulation (inferior frontal gyrus, pars opercularis, IFGop). However, during a motor production task (imitation), the IFGop is hypoactive for both ASD and DCD groups. For all tasks, we find correlations across groups with motor ability, even after controlling for age, IQ, and social impairment. Conversely, across groups, mentalizing ability is correlated with activity in the dorsomedial prefrontal cortex when controlling for motor ability. These findings help identify the unique neurobiological basis of ASD for aspects of social processing. Furthermore, as no previous fMRI studies correlated brain activity with motor impairment in ASD, these findings help explain prior conflicting reports in these simulation networks.
Butera, C., Ring, P., Sideris, J., Jayashankar, A., Kilroy, E., Harrison, L., Cermak, S., & Aziz-Zadeh, L. (2020). Impact of sensory processing on school performance outcomes in high functioning individuals with autism spectrum disorder. Mind, Brain, and Education, 14(3), 243-254. https://doi.org/10.1111/mbe.12242 Show abstract
Difficulty processing sensory information may impede progress in school for students with autism spectrum disorder (ASD). We explore the relationship between sensory processing and school performance in 26 high‐functioning youths with ASD and 26 controls (age 8–14) using measures of sensory, social, cognitive, and academic functioning. In the ASD group, bivariate Pearson correlations indicated a significant positive relationship between intelligence quotient (IQ) and the School Competence Scale (SCS) of the Child Behavior Checklist (CBCL), and a significant negative relationship between Dunn's Sensory Processing Framework and SCS scores. Final hierarchical multiple linear regression model accounting for SCS scores in ASD included IQ, ADHD symptoms, and sensory features. An interaction between increased sensory sensitivity with reduced sensory avoidance behaviors explained the greatest amount of variance in SCS, meaning school performance is lowest for children with greater hypersensitivity and fewer avoidance behaviors. Results indicate a strong impact of sensory processing on school performance in ASD.
Kilroy, E., Cermak, S. A., & Aziz-Zadeh, L. (2019). A review of functional and structural neurobiology of the action observation network in autism spectrum disorder and developmental coordination disorder. Brain Sciences, 9(4), 75. https://doi.org/10.3390/brainsci9040075 Show abstract
Recent research has reported motor impairment similarities between children with developmental coordination disorder (DCD) and a subgroup of individuals with autism spectrum disorder (ASD). However, there is a debate as to whether DCD is a co-occurring diagnosis in individuals with ASD and motor impairments (ASDd), or if motor impairments in ASD are distinct from DCD. However, the etiology of motor impairments is not well understood in either disorder. Clarifying comorbidities in ASD is important to determine different etiopathological phenotyping clusters in ASD and to understand the variety of genetic and environmental factors that contribute to the disorder. Furthermore, this distinction has important therapeutic relevance. Here we explore the current neuroimaging findings in ASD and DCD and discusses possible neural mechanisms that underlie similarities and differences between the disorders.
Keywords: Autism spectrum disorder (ASD); developmental coordination disorder (DCD); action observation network (AON); functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI); resting state; diffusion weighted imaging (DWI)
Kilroy, E., Aziz-Zadeh, L., & Cermak, S. (2019). Ayres theories of autism and sensory integration revisited: What contemporary neuroscience has to say. Brain Sciences, 9(3), 68. https://doi.org/10.3390/brainsci9030068 Show abstract
Abnormal sensory-based behaviors are a defining feature of autism spectrum disorders (ASD). Dr. A. Jean Ayres was the first occupational therapist to conceptualize Sensory Integration (SI) theories and therapies to address these deficits. Her work was based on neurological knowledge of the 1970s. Since then, advancements in neuroimaging techniques make it possible to better understand the brain areas that may underlie sensory processing deficits in ASD. In this article, we explore the postulates proposed by Ayres (i.e., registration, modulation, motivation) through current neuroimaging literature. To this end, we review the neural underpinnings of sensory processing and integration in ASD by examining the literature on neurophysiological responses to sensory stimuli in individuals with ASD as well as structural and network organization using a variety of neuroimaging techniques. Many aspects of Ayres’ hypotheses about the nature of the disorder were found to be highly consistent with current literature on sensory processing in children with ASD but there are some discrepancies across various methodological techniques and ASD development. With additional characterization, neurophysiological profiles of sensory processing in ASD may serve as valuable biomarkers for diagnosis and monitoring of therapeutic interventions, such as SI therapy.
Keywords: Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD); Ayres Sensory Integration (ASI); sensory processing; functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI)
Aziz-Zadeh, L., Kilroy, E., & Corcelli, G. (2018). Understanding activation patterns in shared circuits: Toward a value driven model. Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, 12, 180. https://doi.org/10.3389/fnhum.2018.00180 Show abstract
Over the past decade many studies indicate that we utilize our own motor system to understand the actions of other people. This mirror neuron system (MNS) has been proposed to be involved in social cognition and motor learning. However, conflicting findings regarding the underlying mechanisms that drive these shared circuits make it difficult to decipher a common model of their function. Here we propose adapting a “value-driven” model to explain discrepancies in the human mirror system literature and to incorporate this model with existing models. We will use this model to explain discrepant activation patterns in multiple shared circuits in the human data, such that a unified model may explain reported activation patterns from previous studies as a function of value.