Affective Neuroscience Lab

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Research Projects

Biological factors associated with female anxiety

Women are two times more likely to develop an anxiety disorder than men. However, biological factors associated with this increased risk is not well understood. We study the influence of endogenous (made naturally in the body) reproductive hormones (i.e., estrogen and progesterone) and exogenous (pharmacologically induced) hormone modulators (i.e., combined oral contraceptives) on emotion regulatory behaviors in women compared to men. 

Early life trauma, abuse, and neglect and its relation to adult emotion regulation

Early life experiences shape our brains and ensuing behaviors. When these experiences involve trauma and abuse, there may be deleterious consequences to mental health. We measure fear responses in people who experienced childhood physical and emotion abuse as well as neglect and compare them to people who didn't in order to characterize differences in emotion regulatory processes.  

Marijuana use and fear behaviors among college students

Marijuana use is on the rise in this country. Currently, marijuana is the most commonly used drug among college students. There is some evidence to suggest that chronic marijuana use may be associated with abnormal psychological functioning. However, very little is known about the influence of marijuana on people's ability to regulate their emotions. We study the impact of high versus low marijuana use on emotion regulation in college students. 

Alcohol use and its relation to emotion regulation

Second to marijuana, alcohol is the next most commonly used drug among college students. There is a great deal of research examining causes and consequences of problematic alcohol use in college age adults. We approach this problem by comparing emotion regulatory behaviors in heavy drinkers relative to nondrinkers.  

Test Anxiety and its biological implications

Test anxiety is a set of physiological and behavioral responses that accompany fear and worry surrounding test situations. Approximately 25–40% of individuals in the U.S. have suffered from test anxiety in their lifetime. Nevertheless, very little is known about the brain mechanisms underlying this condition. We probe for heightened amygdala in people who report high versus low test anxiety symptoms in order to understand its role in emotion regulatory processes.  

Our Behavioral Model

Using tools in psychophysiology to study emotion

Through the skeletomuscular system, we measure adaptive reflexes characteristic of behaviors involved in emotional regulation. We use electromyography (EMG) as a noninvasive measure of startle activity. The startle response is an integrative motor reflex to sudden auditory stimuli, observed in all mammalian species, that is mediated by a simple and short neural pathway that is directly connected to the amygdala (an area of the brain that regulates fear behaviors). Exaggerated startle is a predictor of emotion dysregulation and anxiety risk.

Fear-potentiated Startle 

We use a fear conditioning model and tools in psychophysiology to measure emotion regulation. Fear conditioning is based on a simple Pavlovian conditioning model in which a neutral conditioned stimulus (CS, i.e., a shape presented on a computer screen) is paired with an aversive unconditioned stimulus (US, i.e., a forceful airblast directed at the throat). After a number of pairings, the association is formed so that the CS alone elicits the conditioned response (CR, i.e., a fear response). This basic model is used in animal as well as human research to investigate mechanisms of fear learning and memory. In fear-potentiated startle (FPS), the magnitude of the startle reflex increases during aversive CS presentations.

 

We use a fear discrimination paradigm that measures startle amplitude in the presence of a reinforced conditioned stimulus (CS+) that is paired with a US, as well as during exposure to a nonreinforced conditioned stimulus (CS-) that is never paired with a US. The use of the nonreinforced CS-, which serves as a safety cue, allows us to experimentally test differences in safety signal processing (emotion regulation) between experimental groups. Hence, the FPS discrimination paradigm is an extremely powerful paradigm for studying the mechanisms of fear learning and memory. It allows for stringent experimental control over the delivery of aversive stimuli, and the fear responses can be easily quantified.  

Neurobiological model of emotion regulation

Some critical brain regions involved in fear learning in memory are the amygdala and the prefrontal cortex. The amygdala regulates the acquisition of fear memories and the expression of learned fear behaviors. Fear-potentiated startle is a direct measure of amygdala activity. The prefrontal cortex is a higher order brain region that regulates amygdala activity based on the situation or context surrounding the fear stimulus. It plays a critical role in emotion regulation by suppressing amygdala activity during perceived safe conditions.

 

People with anxiety disorders and/or emotion regulation deficits often show heightened amygdala activity (indicated by exaggerated startle) as well as a reduction in prefrontal activity. These deficits result in maladaptive fear behaviors during inappropriate circumstances. 

Collaboration with the POSE Lab

The Affective Neuroscience Lab works closely with the Psychophysiology of Stress and Emotion Lab (POSE) at Kennesaw State University, directed by Sharon Pearcey (Psychology) and V. Doreen Wagner (School of Nursing). The POSE lab assays saliva collections for various hormones that are of interest to both labs. 

Reproductive hormone effects on female anxiety

Free circulating steroid hormones, 17β-Estradiol (E2) and progesterone, are major reproductive hormones that may play a role in cognition. Salivary samples are collected once at the beginning of the experiment and assayed by the POSE lab (mean pg/mL) in duplicates with commercially available Salimetrics Enzyme Immunoassay Kits (Salimetrics, State College, PA), which are competitive immunoassays specifically designed and validated for the quantitative measurement of relevant salivary hormones.   

Stress-related factors in emotion regulation

Through our ongoing collaboration with the POSE lab, we are examining the role of cortisol, DHEA, and DHEA-S on emotion regulatory processes. Free circulating stress hormones are excreted by the adrenal gland and linked to the stress response system. Salivary samples of cortisol, dehydroepiandrosterone (DHEA), and dehydroepiandrosterone sulphate DHEA-S samples are collected at four time points in the experiment: (1) immediately after consent and survey completion (before behavioral training), (2) immediately at the end of the Acquisition trial, (3) immediately at the end of the Extinction trial, (4) 20 minutes after the end of the Extinction trial.