The goal of our research is to improve mental healthcare and promote resilience for individuals who are currently or formerly incarcerated.
We have a longstanding collaboration with the State of Wisconsin Department of Corrections that allows us to work with people currently incarcerated in state prisons. We also work with formerly incarcerated people in our community. Our research approach includes stakeholder engagement, clinical trials, as well as basic studies on psychological and neurobiological functions relevant for emotion and decision-making. More information regarding our studies is available below and on our publications page.
In one line of work, we study individuals who are serving prison sentences. Our studies of incarcerated men and women examine the psychological and neurobiological mechanisms underlying of a number factors that relate to involvement with the judicial system (e.g., psychopathic and antisocial personality traits, history of childhood trauma and post-traumatic stress disorder, drug and alcohol use). 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. We also conduct clinical trials to determine the feasibility and efficacy of psychotherapy in the prison setting. Across these studies, we are particularly interested in characterizing impulse control, emotional responsiveness, and social/moral judgment, and determining how these factors contribute to criminal behavior.
In a second 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, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress disorder. 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 and moral judgment.
In a third line of work, we study individuals with mood and anxiety disorders, through the UW Psychiatry outpatient clinic. 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.