The goal of our research is to identify and characterize the brain circuits underlying human emotion, decision-making, and social behavior. We believe that a better understanding of the psychological and neurobiological mechanisms that underlie deficits in these functions will lead to more effective strategies for diagnosing, treating, and preventing mental illness. In our research, we study multiple clinical populations with deficits in social and affective function, including neurological patients with prefrontal brain damage, prison inmates with psychopathic personality disorder, and psychiatric outpatients with mood and anxiety disorders. We employ a variety of measures, including clinical diagnostic interviews, cognitive and behavioral testing, physiological responses (e.g., heart rate, eye movements), and neuroimaging assessments of brain structure and function (e.g., fMRI). More information regarding our studies is available below and on our lab’s “publications” page.
Studies of neurological lesion patients
In one line of work, we study neurological and neurosurgical patients who have undergone dramatic changes in emotion, personality, and social behavior as a result of focal brain lesions. By associating specific areas of brain damage with specific changes in emotion, one can infer which brain areas are critically involved in affective function, and ultimately, which brain areas may be responsible for disorders of emotion, such as depression and anxiety. In addition to detailed mapping of the patient’s structural brain damage, we employ a range of assessment techniques that probe the patient’s emotional state as well as cognitive and psychosocial functions. For example, we have shown that brain lesions involving prefrontal cortex or amygdala can alter the patient’s risk of developing certain types of psychopathology, such as depression and post-traumatic stress disorder. In other studies we have shown that brain lesions involving ventromedial prefrontal cortex (vmPFC) can alter the patient’s “rational” decision-making, such as moral judgment, financial bargaining, or even susceptibility to commercial advertising.
Studies of prison inmates
In a second line of work, we study incarcerated criminal offenders. Our studies of adult male and female prison inmates examine the psychological and neurobiological mechanisms underlying of a number factors that relate to criminal behavior (e.g., psychopathic and antisocial personality traits, history of childhood trauma and post-traumatic stress disorder, drug and alcohol abuse). In addition to diagnostic clinical interviews and neuropsychological testing, we employ measures of peripheral physiology (e.g., heart rate, skin conductance, eye-tracking) as well as measures of brain structure and function, which is made possible through a unique mobile MRI unit that we deploy to state prisons. In these studies, we are particularly interested in identifying the neural correlates of deficits in impulse control, emotional responsiveness, and social/moral judgment, and determining how these deficits contribute to criminal behavior.
Studies of psychiatric patients with mood and anxiety disorders
In a third line of work, we study individuals with mood and anxiety disorders. Mood and anxiety disorders (such as depression and generalized anxiety disorder) are the most common class of mental illness, however, there is a need for more targeted and effective treatments. In our research, we aim to identify specific brain-behavior relationships that are disrupted in these disorders, in order to help facilitate a more objective and biologically-based system of diagnosis and treatment. In addition to diagnostic clinical interviews and neuropsychological testing, we employ measures of peripheral physiology (e.g., heart rate, skin conductance, eye-tracking) as well as MRI measures of brain structure and function. In these studies, we are particularly interested in the anticipation and regulation of emotional responses.