Risk for chronic psychopathology relates to individual differences in brain development and early-life experience. Since many psychiatric symptoms are manifested during childhood, understanding pediatric psychopathology and increasing treatment efficacy may reduce the long-term effects of these afflictions, and contribute to healthier development. Our primary research interest concerns emotional disorders in children and adolescents. Specifically we focus on studying the origins of anxiety and its developmental course, identifying at-risk populations, and delineating both its biological and environmental agents.
Our research on fear learning extends considerable prior work showing the profound impact that early fear learning experiences exert upon a child’s functioning over time. Fear conditioning is the most common experimental paradigm used to study fear learning processes, as it provides a translational measure that can be used to study brain-behavior associations across species. In addition, fear extinction is the fundamental mechanism underpinning exposure therapy, the most common treatment for anxiety. Therefore, findings from extinction experiments are very relevant to new treatment development. Using age appropriate fear conditioning paradigms, we are currently studying fear learning and fear extinction in normative and anxious youth and adults. These studies involve a wide range of measurements from psychophysiology, fMRI, self-report and behavioral observations.
Our work on threat-related attention biases builds upon a wealth of neuroscience research showing that attention biases in anxiety involve rapidly-deployed, sub-cortically-based, reflexive mechanisms, occurring below the threshold for awareness. The study of attention biases is particularly relevant for developmental research as attention gates the engagement of many other cognitive processes, including learning and memory. Indeed, recent findings suggest that attention biases can be altered through training, paving the way for new, non-pharmacological approaches to the treatment of anxiety that are particularly relevant for children.
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