Using Virtual Reality to Understand Fear and Proximity

Traditional lab-based fear conditioning studies are often limited in how well they generalize to real-life threatening experiences. To address this limitation, we developed a 3-D virtual reality simulation that can be used during functional MRI to provide participants with a more contextually rich environment during fear acquisition and extinction. With virtual reality we can also investigate how spatial distance to a threat (near or far) influences the fear conditioning process, since proximity has been shown to exacerbate the development of traumatic stress disorders. With this research we hope to better characterize the basic neurobehavioral mechanisms relating proximity and fear learning, thereby isolating neural circuitry that contributes to extinction-resistant memory for threats that invade peri-personal space. Graduate student Leonard Faul is leading this project. .


This project investigates the role of emotional regulation and the impact of depression across the lifespan. The ability to regulate one’s emotional responses is critical for maintaining emotional health in the face of adverse events that cumulate over time. We believe that multiple factors, including, age, depression status, neurocognitive functioning, and social support will impact the success of emotion regulation using reappraisal and distraction strategies. We also believe that the combined effect of those variables on strategy use will predict depressive symptoms further into a person’s lifespan. Ultimately, our goal for this project is to gain insights into how maturational changes influence the ability of depressed adults to reduce negative affect.

Neural Representation of Conditioned Fear

Extinction learning is a primary means by which acquired fear associations are suppressed and is a model system for emotion dysregulation in anxiety disorders. In this project we’re applying multivariate analysis techniques to functional MRI data to look at changes in brain activation patterns associated with encoded fear as that fear is extinguished. We hope to better understand where and when these changes occur in the brain so we can recognize when they might be disrupted in anxiety-related disorders This project is currently led by Post Doc John Graner.