Research in the lab examines the development of cognitive, emotional and social processes using cognitive and affective neuroscience methods. Below is a brief description of the various research projects currently underway in the lab.

BRain development during puberty and Anxiety IN Youth (BRAINY) Study

The onset of anxiety disorders is highly prevalent in childhood and adolescence and often persist into adulthood. During early adolescence we see important sex differences emerge in the severity of anxiety symptoms in girls and boys, yet the neurodevelopmental mechanisms underlying these differences remain unknown. This study aims to investigate how the increase in pubertal hormones during early adolescence will exacerbate alterations in fronto-amygdala circuitry in anxious youth, particularly in girls. Recent evidence suggests that anxiety is associated with heightened amygdala activation, reduced fronto-amygdala functional connectivity to threat, reduced structural connectivity of white matter tracts connecting the prefrontal cortex and the amygdala, as well as an imbalance in the concentrations of the neurotransmitters y-aminobutyric acid (GABA) and glutamate in this circuitry. There is also evidence that changes in pubertal hormones influence the functioning of this brain circuitry. Thus, we will test how the development of fronto-amygdala circuitry during puberty and changes in pubertal hormones are associated with increases in threat reactivity and anxiety symptoms, especially in girls. These findings could lead to the discovery of sex-specific neural markers of risk for anxiety and facilitate the development of personalized intervention targets.

Funding: NIMH R01 – MH126979

Neurodevelopment of Worry Regulation

Chronic and severe worry typically start in childhood and adolescence; yet, little is known about the neural mechanisms of worry that may contribute to onset of mood disorders. The study aims to characterize age-related patterns of neural activation and functional connectivity during worry induction and regulation in adolescents (age 12-17) and young adults (age 18-30) varying in levels of worry and to determine the extent to which GABA and glutamate concentrations are associated with neural functioning and worry and anxiety symptoms. Findings could lead to the identification of targets for novel neurodevelopmentally-based interventions of chronic and severe worry and prevention of depression in at-risk individuals.

Funding: NIMH R21 – MH122808

Puberty and adolescent brain development

There is a fundamental gap in understanding how puberty affects neural systems supporting emotion regulation in typically developing adolescents. Filling this gap is important to advance knowledge regarding neurodevelopmental markers of risk for mood disorders, which typically onset during adolescence particularly in girls. Given the importance of attentional biases in mood disorders, the goal of this project is to use EEG, fMRI and functional connectivity methods to gain a deeper understanding of puberty-specific effects on the functioning of frontolimbic and frontostriatal systems involved in attentional control in the context of emotion and motivation.

Funding: NIMH R01MH099007

Functioning of neural systems underlying cognitive-affective processes in ADHD

Existing studies of adult ADHD, have typically focused on the functioning of dorsal and lateral prefrontal systems underlying cognitive control processes. However, recent evidence suggests that fronto-striatal-limbic systems supporting processes at the interface of cognition and motivational/emotional processes – implicated in self-regulation of behavior and emotion – may also be impaired in ADHD. The goal of this project is to examine the functioning of neural systems supporting processes at the interface of cognitive control and emotion/motivation in relation to latent variable growth curves of ADHD symptoms estimated from the uniquely frequent and long-term assessments of the Pittsburgh ADHD Longitudinal Study (PALS). Given recent evidence that emotional dysregulation (specifically, anger-irritability) may have distinct neurobiological substrates in ADHD, we will test whether variation in the functioning of these systems is associated with anger-irritability also measured longitudinally in the PALS.

Funding: NIMH R01MH101096

Research Methods

Our primary research methods include adapting computerized cognitive control tasks to include emotional stimuli or motivational contexts. It also involves creating virtual peer social contexts. We use a multimodal approach that involves functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), multiband (MB) fMRI, structural MRI (sMRI) and Diffusion Weighted Imaging (DWI) to address scientific questions. Our lab is also equipped with a shared 128 channel EEG system and shared use of a 3T MRI scanner, located at the Magnetic Resonance Research Center (MRRC), University of Pittsburgh Medical Center.