Emotion Regulation through Distancing

One method for regulating emotion involves using perspective-taking processes to imagine emotional situations from a distance. For instance, imagining how you will feel about an upsetting interaction with a friend after years have passed (distance in time) may lessen your current response. We are examining and comparing different forms of distancing to determine their mechanisms and effectiveness. We are also evaluating ways to maximize the emotion regulation effects of distancing. For this research, we are utilizing self-report, psychophysiological, and neuroimaging measures. The ultimate goals of this work are to determine the most effective ways to implement distancing for applications like cognitive therapies and to understand how the brain supports these complex perspective-taking processes. Graduate student John Powers is leading this project.

Virtual Fear

This project uses emerging immersive virtual reality tools to characterize the neurophysiological underpinnings of fear learning. This project makes use of the Duke immersive Virtual Environment (DiVE) facility in the Pratt School of Engineering. Participants navigate through 3-D virtual worlds while they encounter fear-relevant conditioned stimuli, such as snakes. After a delay, participants who re-experience the threatening stimuli in the original context show enhanced fear retention compared to participants who experience them in a new context. This finding shows how environmental cues alter the strength of fear memories. We have adapted this technology for use in an MRI scanner. We have discovered that the contextual recovery of fear memories depends on a hippocampal-dorsal anterior cingulate-amygdala circuit. This project can lead to novel therapeutic interventions for anxiety disorders by revealing how manipulations of context miminize the recovery of latent fears. This project is currently led by postdoctoral associate Daniel Stjepanovic.

Fear Generalization

This project seeks to characterize how fears acquired from threatening experiences generalize to other stimuli and contexts that were not present at the time of the original event. We found that fears generalize across cues that resemble threats according to perceptual and conceptual factors, and that these effects are mediated by alterations in connectivity between the amygdala and the cortex. Using multivariate statistical tools, we also found that threatening experiences alter the cortical representation of object categories. This project may lead to new directions in treating anxiety disorders characterized by overgeneralized responses to threats.

Stress and Memory

This project investigates how stress alters memory function under different states of motivation and arousal and, in turn, how stressful memories can be altered to reduce their emotional impact during recollection. In collaboration with researchers from the University of Arizona, we found that stress protects memories against the incorporation of misinformation under conditions of high emotional arousal. In collaboration with Alison Adcock, we are now determining how stress alters spatial memory while participants navigate through a virtual maze under conditions of reward and punishment. We are also investigating whether we can reduce the emotionality of memories using manipulations of emotion regulation and counterfactual thinking (in collaboration with Felipe De Brigard). We hope the results from these experiments will provide new insight into the growing area of memory reconsolidation. The latter studies are led by graduate student Natasha Parikh.

Neuroimaging of Posttraumatic Stress Disorder

This project investigates alterations in brain systems associated with memory, emotion, and executive function in posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD). In collaboration with Rajendra Morey and Gregory McCarthy, we are investigating resting-state and task-based alterations in prefrontal-amygdala circuitry associated with PTSD. We have identified alterations in resting state connectivity associated with the amygdala, changes in amygdala and hippocampal volume, as well as imbalances in prefrontal-limbic regional activation during emotional distraction and threat processing tasks. In collaboration with David Rubin, we are investigating how intrustive emotional memories alter brain function in individuals with PTSD symptoms. This latter project is led by postdoctoral associate Dawei Li.