Autism Sensory and Repetitive Behavior Research Cascio Lab Vanderbilt University Medical Center

Carissa Cascio, Ph.D.


My graduate training was in neuroscience at Emory University. My work was centered on sensory neuroscience applied to human and nonhuman primates, with an emphasis on tactile perception and functional imaging. Having developed an interest in the neuroscience of autism, I pursued postdoctoral studies at the Neurodevelopmental Disorders Research Center at the University of North Carolina. There I focused dually on somatosensory processing in individuals with autism, and diffusion tensor imaging in young children with autism and other developmental disabilities.

In 2007, I joined the Psychiatric Neuroimaging Program in Vanderbilt’s Department of Psychiatry. I hold a secondary appointment in the Department of Psychology and Human Development, and am affiliated with the Vanderbilt Kennedy Center, Vanderbilt Brain Institute, Center for Integrative and Cognitive Neuroscience, and Vanderbilt Vision Research Center. My lab focuses on the neural basis of sensory and repetitive behaviors in individuals with autism spectrum disorders.

Current Lab Members:

Michelle Failla
Postdoctoral Research Fellow

Michelle received her PhD in neuroscience at the University of Pittsburgh in 2014. Her graduate work in traumatic brain injury aimed to understand individual responses to injury. She worked to identify biomarkers (genetic, blood, and brain imaging) that might guide care for those at risk for depression and cognitive problems following brain injury. Previously, Michelle conducted work at Vanderbilt University in mouse models of autism, focusing on genetic factors affecting social behavior. Michelle's work in the Cascio lab will focus on neural networks underlying attention and perception related to sensory processing in individuals with autism spectrum disorders. 

Samona Davis
Research Analyst

Samona received her B.S. in Psychology with a minor in Biology from Howard University. Her previous work with children and adults on the autism spectrum peaked her interest in autism research and brought her to the Cascio lab. She hopes to pursue a PhD in Clinical Psychology with a Neuroscience focus, after gaining more research experience. 

Madison Gerdes 
Research Analyst

Madison received her B.A. in Neuroscience with a minor in Spanish from Vanderbilt University. Her interest in Schizophrenia brought her to the Cascio Lab where she is working jointly on projects involving sensory processing in Autism and Schizophrenia. After gaining more research experience, she hopes to pursue a PhD in Sociology. Her ultimate goal is to work with individuals in the prison system with mental illness. 

Christian Okitondo
Data Scientist

Chris received his master's degree in Statistics. He has previously worked on estimating, comparing, and analyzing the number of new cancer cases and deaths by sex in 2016. His love of medicine and data science brought him to the Cascio Lab. After gaining more experience in the field, he hopes to pursue his PhD in Biostatistics.

Lauren Bryant
Graduate Student

Lauren is a 5th year PhD student in the neuroscience program. She is interested in a clinical neuroscience approach to understanding autism spectrum disorders. 

Zack Williams
Graduate Student 

Zack  is a 1st year MD/PhD student at Vanderbilt. He received his B.S. in Psychology from Yale University, where he was heavily involved in autism research at the Yale Child Study Center. Zack is interested in the phenomenology of sensory abnormalities in autism and other neuropsychiatric disorders, particularly in adolescence and adulthood. Ultimately, he hopes to combine a number of behavioral, questionnaire, and neuroimaging methods to gain a richer understanding of individual differences in sensory function across traditional disorder categories.

Alisa Zoltowski
Graduate Student

Alisa is a 2nd year PhD student in the neuroscience program. She received a double B.S. in Biospsychology, Cognition, & Neuroscience (BCN) and Statistics from the University of Michigan and worked as a research assistant at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia (CHOP)’s Center for Autism Research (CAR) before joining the lab. She is a triplet inspired by her brother to better understand how sensory differences influence emotional outcomes in autism, from both a neural and behavioral level.

Payton DePalma
Undergraduate Student

Payton is a senior double majoring in 
Neuroscience and Cellular and Molecular
Biology. She has previously worked at a 
sensory gym for children with sensory processing issues. She has a younger brother with autism, epilepsy, and apraxia who has inspired her to study neuroscience. She hopes to continue doing autism research for the rest of her life. See the video she made about her younger brother here:

Heayeon Kim
Undergraduate Student

Heayeon is junior double majoring in Medicine, Health, and Society and Neuroscience. She joined the Cascio lab to gain a better understanding of autism spectrum disorder and to further explore my interests in both neuroscience and research. She hopes to pursue an MD in neuroscience and to continue doing related research.

Lab Alumni:

Miller Tracy, Research Assistant 
Current Position: Data Science, Seattle, Washington

Brynna Heflin, Research Assistant
Current position: Graduate student in Clinical Psychology, Florida International University

Lisa Mash, Research Assistant
Current position: Graduate student in Clinical Psychology, San Diego State University/UC San Diego Joint Program

Jennifer Pryweller, Graduate Student Affiliate
Current position: Postdoctoral Research Associate at St. Jude Children's Research Hospital
Kim Schauder, Research Assistant     
Current position: Graduate student in Clinical Psychology, University of Rochester

Jen Foss-Feig, Graduate Student
Current position: Postdoctoral Associate, Yale Child Study Center

Jessica Heacock, Research Assistant
Current position: Board-certified behavior analyst (BCBA), Metro Nashville Public Schools

Scott Bolton, Medical Student (Emphasis Program)
Current position: Resident in Pediatrics, Cincinnati Children's Hospital

Akua Cosby, Research Assistant
Current position: Graduate student in Counseling, Texas Woman's University

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