Lauren Wakschlag

Professor and Vice Chair for Scientific and Faculty Development, Department of Medical Social Sciences, Feinberg School of Medicine


Clinical and developmental psychologist Lauren Wakschlag directs the developmental mechanism program in Feinberg’s Department of Medical Social Sciences (MSS). The program focuses on young children’s emergent mental health problems and early-life risk mechanisms. She is a leading expert on developmentally sensitive characterization of disruptive behavior, with a primary focus on measurement science. A central focus of her work has been modeling the effects of prenatal exposure to cigarettes on children’s behavior “in context,” which encompasses the interaction between exposure and genotype and the quality of the parenting environment. 

At Northwestern, Wakschlag is also directing MSS’s One Northwestern initiative, which seeks to integrate the life and biomedical sciences at the university level. She specifically promotes collaboration between the medical school and IPR through her work with IPR’s Cells to Society (C2S): The Center for Social Disparities and Health

Current Research

Prenatal Smoking and the Substrates of Disruptive Behavior in Early Life. With support from the National Institute of Drug Abuse, Wakschlag is conducting a follow-up study of nearly 400 preschool-age children, whose mothers were part of an earlier cohort study of smoking during pregnancy. This “Substrates Study” has three aims. First, it seeks to characterize exposure-related behavioral and neurocognitive phenotypes during childhood development. Second, it combines molecular and behaviorial genetic approaches to elucidate the complex interface of genetic risk with the effects of prenatal exposure on fetal brain development, in predicting individual differences in developmental trajectories. Third, it examines how early parenting and exposure interact to predict behavioral risk. Wakschlag and co-principal investigator Kimberly Espy of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln are collaborating with epidemiologists and geneticists on the project. In related work led by biostatistician Vanja Dukic of the University of Chicago, Wakschlag is also collaborating on the development of integrated exposure measurement methods, incorporating information from the mothers, bioassays, and nicotine metabolism.

Developmental Characterization of Preschool Disruptive Behavior. The MAPS study, support by the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), aims to validate the Multidimensional Assessment of Preschool Disruptive Behavior (MAP-DB). This paper-and-pencil tool is designed to translate developmental constructs gleaned from more intensive methods into methods that can be used in large-scale population studies. Wakschlag and her collaborators are validating the MAP-DB tool in a racially and ethnically diverse sample of 3,700 preschoolers. MAP-DB includes a demonstration of differentiated association of the disruptive behavior dimensions to discrete neurocognitive processes and predictive utility. She has also recently obtained an NIMH American Recovery and Reinvestment Act supplement to integrate Event-Related Potentials, a form of developmentally-sensitive neuroimaging, into the MAPS validation battery. Wakschlag is leading the MAPS study in collaboration with a national team of researchers, including Margaret Briggs-Gowan of the University of Connecticut, Alice Carter of the University of Massachusetts-Boston, Patrick Tolan of the University of Virginia, and NIMH neuroscientists. Find related information, here.

Family Talk Study. Wakschlag is also a collaborator on the Health Connections Study, which examines social and emotional influences on teen smoking. It receives funding from the National Cancer Institute and is led by Robin Mermelstein of the University of Illinois at Chicago. Wakschlag is leading a sub-study, designed to develop the Family Talk about Smoking (FTAS) paradigm. The FTAS uses a novel, developmentally-based approach to characterize direct observations of conversations between parents and their teens who have experimented with smoking. In particular, the study aims to identify aspects of family communication that differentiate teens whose smoking experimentation reflects typical adolescent risk-taking behavior from those whose smoking reflects the onset of chronic problem behavior. The FTAS has been validated in a group of ethnically and socioeconomically diverse adolescents and their parents, including demonstration of its predictive and incremental utility and systematic differences in the family communications based on parental smoking status.

Selected Publications

Journal Articles and Chapters

Metzger, A., N. Dawes, L. S. Wakschlag, and R. Mermelstein. 2011. Modeling longitudinal pathways from adolescent organized activity involvement and problem peer associations to youth smoking. Journal of Applied Developmental Psychology 32(1): 1–9.

Wakschlag, L., D. Henry, R.J.R. Blair, V. Dukic, J. Burns, and K. Pickett. 2011. Unpacking the association: Individual differences in the relation of prenatal exposure to cigarettes and disruptive behavior phenotypes. Neurotoxicology and Teratology 33(1): 145–54.

Pickett, K., K. Kasza, G. Biesecker, R. Wright, and L. Wakschlag. 2009. Women who remember, women who don’t: A methodologic study of maternal recall of smoking during pregnancy. Nicotine & Tobacco Research 11(10):1166–74.

Dukic, V., M. Niessner, K. Pickett, N. Benowitz, and L. Wakschlag. 2009. Calibrating self-reported measures of maternal smoking in pregnancy via bioassays using a Monte Carlo approach. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health 6(6): 1744–59.

Hutchinson, J., K. Pickett, J. Green, and L. Wakschlag. 2009. Smoking in pregnancy and behavioural problems in 3-year-old boys and girls: An analysis of the UK Millennium Cohort Study. Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health 64(1) 82–88.

Wakschlag, L., and B. Danis. 2009. Characterizing early childhood disruptive behavior: Enhancing developmental sensitivity. In Handbook of Infant Mental Health, 3rd ed., ed. C. Zeanah, 392–408. New York: Guilford Press.

Wakschlag, L., E. Kistner, D. Pine, G. Biesecker, K. Pickett, et al. 2009. Interaction of prenatal exposure to cigarettes and MAOA genotype in pathways to youth antisocial behavior. Molecular Psychiatry 15(9): 92837.

Pickett, K., R. Wilkinson, and L. Wakschlag. 2009. The psychosocial context of pregnancy smoking and quitting in the Millennium Cohort Study. Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health 63(6): 474–80.

Wakschlag, L., et al. 2008. Observational assessment of preschool disruptive behavior: Part I: Reliability of the Disruptive Behavior Diagnostic Observation Schedule (DB-DOS) and Part II: Validity of the Disruptive Behavior Diagnostic Observation Schedule (DB-DOS). Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry 47(6): 622–41.

Pickett, K., C. Wood, J. Adamson, L. Desouza, and L. Wakschlag. 2008. Meaningful differences in maternal smoking behavior during pregnancy: Implications for infant behavioural vulnerability. Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health 62(4): 318–24.

Wakschlag, L., M. Briggs-Gowan, et al. 2007. A developmental framework for distinguishing disruptive behavior from normative misbehavior in preschool children. Journal of Childhood Psychological Psychiatry 48(10): 976–87.