In the broadest sense, our research focuses on understanding depression, anxiety, and the effects of early life stress in children, adolescents, and adults. In our lab we study attention, interpretation, and memory biases in the processing of emotional information, neural substrates of emotional dysfunction in children, adolescents, and adults using fMRI, and cognitive and biological mechanisms that contribute to the intergenerational transmission of risk for different types of psychopathology.
Information-Processing Biases in Depression and Anxiety
Children and adults diagnosed with clinical depression or anxiety have been found to exhibit biases in their processing of emotional information, particularly when they are in the midst of a significant episode of the disorder. The causal status and functional significance of these biases in precipitating and maintaining depression and anxiety is not yet clear. One major aim of our research is to examine the role of these maladaptive forms of information processing, assessed both in the laboratory and in day-to-day experience, in the onset and maintenance of episodes of depression and anxiety, and in recovery from these disorders.
fMRI and the Neural Bases of Depression and Anxiety
A growing body of research is demonstrating that depressed and anxious people differ from their non-disordered peers both in the volume of specific brain structures and in their patterns of neural activation as they process emotional stimuli. We are using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to examine patterns of brain activation that characterize the functioning of depressed and anxious individuals as they process emotional information and respond to various types of positive and negative stimuli, and at rest in the scanner.
Intergenerational Transmission of Depression and the Prevention of Psychopathology
Having parents with depressive or anxiety disorders increases the risk of these disorders in children and adolescents. The mechanisms by which this risk is transmitted from parent to child, however, are not well understood. In our lab we are examining a large number of biological, cognitive, and social factors in the young children of mothers who have experienced depression or anxiety. There are two major aims of this project. First, we are identifying specific characteristics of parents and children that help us to understand why many of the children go on to develop a psychiatric disorder. Second, we are using neurofeedback and attention bias training to reduce stress reactivity in a separate sample of children to delay or even prevent the onset of disorder.
Early Life Stress, Puberty, and Neural Trajectories
Early life stress is a significant risk factor for the development of psychiatric symptoms that cut across diagnostic categories. The mechanisms through which ELS confers this heightened vulnerability, however, are poorly understood. Given the enormous number of referrals involving child maltreatment each year, it is imperative that we examine the neurodevelopmental consequences of early life stress and the mechanisms by which changes in brain function increase the risk for psychopathology in boys and girls following puberty. We believe that findings from this project will help us understand of how risk for psychopathology emerges in children who have experienced early life stress, and will inform early interventions aimed at preventing adverse consequence of this early exposure to stress.