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Dr. Kara Kerr

Department of Psychology

Dr. Kara Kerr

Adolescence is a critical developmental period for brain structures related to socioemotional processing. Experiences during adolescence set the course for future functioning through adulthood. Many people also experience their first problems with mental health during the teenage years, with 75% of psychiatric disorders having their onset before the age of 24. Additionally, girls are far more likely to experience depression and anxiety during adolescence as compared to boys. The COVID-19 pandemic has only exacerbated already rising rates of adolescent mental health problems, causing the American Academy of Pediatrics to declare a National Emergency in Child and Adolescent Mental Health. A key protective factor against these difficulties is relationships teens have with parents and peers. Dr. Kara Kerr’s research aims to better understand how these social influences impact adolescent brain development and how they can be used to promote positive emotional trajectories.


Much of Dr. Kerr’s research uses neuroimaging methods, such as functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) and functional near-infrared spectroscopy (fNIRS). Using these techniques, she and her team can learn how teens’ brains respond as they are having emotional discussions with their parents. She has recently developed a method termed “dyadic neurofeedback,” where parents can view their teen’s brain activity on a computer screen in real-time while they interact. fNIRS hyperscanning studies are currently under development to study synchrony and covariation in parents’ and teens’ brains while they interact, with the goal to potentially target these dyadic signals as a future intervention. Participants in these studies also complete survey measures to learn how brain activity is related to mental health, parent-child relationships and relationships with peers. Teens also complete short surveys multiple times a day to study their emotions and social interactions in the “real world” and link these responses to neurobiology.


In addition to the above methods, Dr. Kerr and her team also use open access datasets, such as the Adolescent Brain Cognitive Development (ABCD) Study data, to answer questions with a larger, more diverse sample of adolescents from across the nation. She has previously used this data to examine links between gastrointestinal and eating disorder symptoms during early adolescence, and her team is currently working on analyses to better understand the effects of childhood adversity on brain development.


Dr. Kerr is also involved in the OSU Brain Initiative and the development of the neuroscience curriculum at OSU. She enjoys mentoring students at the high school, undergraduate, and graduate level and encouraging them to pursue careers in neuroscience and clinical psychology.

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