Mapping the Brain in UNCW's Trauma and Resilience Lab


Dr. Nooner and Student ResearchChild abuse and child neglect are the two of the most preventable catalysts that lead to mental health problems in adulthood. This is why Kate Nooner, associate professor of psychology at the University of North Carolina Wilmington, has dedicated so much time and effort into her Trauma and Resilience Lab. The goal of the lab is to integrate neuroscience into studying risk and resilience behaviors following childhood trauma and abuse.

Nooner brought the lab to UNCW in 2012 to target the needs of children in southeastern North Carolina. Through partnerships with the New Hanover County Department of Social Services and the Carousel Center for Abused Children, the UNCW Trauma and Resilience Lab provides another branch of the region's mental health resources.

Using neuro feedback, an emerging treatment, Nooner and a group of undergraduate and graduate psychology students map the brains of volunteers to visually identify how trauma has altered the brain. After a consent and review process, researchers collect information about the behaviors of volunteers, running the gamut from social interaction to substance use.

Volunteers are asked about their thoughts, feelings and actions to gauge levels of anxiety and depression. Then, an electroencephalogram (EEG) test is administered to measure brain activity. Nooner hopes these EEG tests can eventually be used as a screening device to identify people at risk. Vital research must be done to compare the brains of at-risk trauma survivors versus the brains of resilient trauma survivors.

Nooner describes her use of EEG tests as a way to work in tandem with therapy and medication. Children are often referred from the Carousel Center to the Trauma and Resilience Lab, especially those who have a hard time opening up in therapy.

"Children who have had traumatic experiences have often been maltreated," Nooner said. "Children have difficulty focusing and settling down because they've been in so many chaotic environments. Neuro-feedback can help their brains settle down a bit so they can engage in the process of treatment."

The Trauma and Resilience Lab is also home to the College Alcohol Study. The lab becomes a safe place for college students to speak openly about substance use and risky behavior. Students complete questionnaires related to substance use before undergoing an EEG test. The purpose of the study is to pinpoint students with little to no substance use who have had traumatic experiences in the past. In discovering what the brains of those individuals look like, the study can help researchers understand how to help less resilient students.

Nooner wants to create more resources for people who have experienced trauma. "Negative consequences following childhood trauma are things that we can largely prevent," Nooner said. "But they're not things that people and children can do on their own. We are resilient, but that resilience comes from our community, not from us as individuals. When you have trauma, you need more resources than you had before to be resilient. I'm hoping the work I'm doing will help more kids and college students who have had trauma lead healthy, productive lives."

--Caitlin Taylor