University of Wisconsin–Madison

H. Hill Goldsmith, PhD

Fluno Bascom Professor & Leona Tyler Professor of Psychology

H. Hill Goldsmith, PhD

PhD, University of Minnesota

Contact Information

Waisman Center
1500 Highland Ave
Room 573
Madison, WI 53706
Lab Website: Wisconsin Twin Research

Research Statement

A principal line of current research, in collaboration with Professor Gernsbacher and others, focuses on autism spectrum disorders. One aspect of this research implies that the current results of genetic (i.e., genome screen) and neuroanatomical (i.e., brain imaging) studies have been less definitive than expected because of the heterogeneity among persons with autistic spectrum disorders. Even when diagnosed according to strict and consistent criteria, symptom profiles of persons with autism vary greatly, suggesting variability in etiology. Thus, we propose to identify and validate a putative subtype of autism, which we refer to as “developmental verbal dyspraxia,” or DVD. DVD is a motor-speech programming disorder resulting in difficulty coordinating and sequencing the oral-motor movements necessary to produce and combine speech sounds (phonemes) to form syllables, words, phrases, and sentences. We hypothesize that a sizable minority of minimally verbal or nonverbal persons with autism are characterize d by DVD. Support for our hypothesis comes from behavioral, genetic, and neuroanatomical evidence. Our project seeks to identify and validate a DVD subtype of autism by screening all children with autism (under age 16) in a metropolitan area; identifying the members of this group who are also characterized by DVD; selecting an autism control group of children not characterized by DVD and a typically developing control group; collecting extensive behavioral, medical, and developmental histories of all children in these groups. We shall also construct indices of the DVD subtype from diagnostic instruments currently being used in full genome screens (e.g., the ADI-R and A-DOS), with the future aim of pro-viding these indices to the research groups who have conducted the genome screens. This research will lay the foundation for identifying other subtypes of autism spectrum disorder. In related research, we have also begun to identify potential participants for a statewide twin study of autism spectrum disorder. Epidemiological research on autism, in collaboration with other Waisman Center investigators, is also in the planning stage.

A second project, underway for several years, is the fine-grained, longitudinal Genetics of Emotional Ontogeny project. This project includes multimodal, comprehensive assessment of emotion and temperament as well as selective assessment of cognition, motor development, physiology, social interaction, and the home environment from birth t o age 3 years. The final sample size will total about 500 twin pairs. The project incorporates an unusually broad set of methods, including lab-based elicitation of behavior, home observation, testing by examiner, telephone interviews, hospital records, diaries, narrative constructions, language inventories, and parent-child and sibling interaction episodes. The chief issues addressed by this project are the nature, sources, and functional consequences of emotional individuality.

A third project uses the resources of our statewide panel of twins. In collaboration with Professor Lemery, we are engaged in a twin study of young children at risk for (1) internalizing problems such as anxiety, social withdrawal, and depression; (2) externalizing problems, such as motor excess, oppositional and conduct problems, and disinhibition; and (3) attentional problems, particularly ADHD. The nature of the risk is assessed and verified by parental questionnaire, structured interview, observation of children’s emotional individuality, observation of interpersonal interactions, and multiple biological measures. These measures are also collected on cotwins and on a control sample. The main goals of the project are to estimate the heritable influence on various forms of childhood psychopathology using both categorical and dimensional approaches, to study the relation of temperamental traits and psychopathology within a behavior-genetic context (including family history information), to consider possible risk-reducing factors related to resiliency and adaptability, such as the capacity to experience and express pleasure, and to collect, extract, and store DNA samples for future analyses once more potential markers of the disorders and more genes involved in relevant neural system. Even more broadly, the project approaches behavioral disorders with the conceptual and empirical tools of developmental psychobiology in addition to the more typical clinical orientation.

A fourth project extends our recently completed behavior-genetic research with infant twins to a new sample of 250 pairs of 6-9 year-old twins, with the inclusion of measures to provide a comprehensive assessment of physiology related to affective reactivity, and particularly to anxiety. Physiological measures are obtained in the laboratory under multiple baseline and emotion-elicitation conditions. These measures include EEG asymmetry, basal and reactive cortisol levels, fear-potentiated startle, and cardiac psychophysiology (including impedance cardiography). The study also employs behavioral measures, assessed in the home, that allow us to assess the latency, duration, and intensity of facial, vocal, and motoric responses to affective stimuli. Other child and family characteristics are assessed by interview and questionnaire, and medical histories are obtained. This project contributes to all four types of evidence needed to complete the logical chain of inference involving genetics, physiology, and behavior in this domain. First, a genetic basis for behavioral individuality must be established. Next, a genetic basis for the biological substrates (e.g., prefrontal EEG asymmetry) needs to be established. Then, we investigate whether there is a common genetic basis for the phenotypically associated behaviors and their biological substrates. Finally, as the field advances, specific molecular genetic markers for relevant behavior and physiology need to be identified.

Selected Publications