My research program takes an interdisciplinary approach to understanding the neurocognitive mechanisms associated with socio-emotional processing and development in children and adolescents. Specifically, I study both normative emotion processing and biased processing that portend internalizing outcomes (anxiety and depression). I also examine how environmental and individual factors shape normative and biased processing via longitudinal designs. Based on the basic research on emotion processing, I also test prevention/intervention strategies that target specific vulnerabilities in at-risk youth, which can also inform mechanistic models of socio-emotional development. To these aims, I use a multi-method approach incorporating behavioral, EEG/ERP, MRI, and eye-tracking measures.
Normative emotion processing and typical developmentHumans of all ages process a significant amount of socio-emotional information on a daily basis. Adaptive processing of such information is a cornerstone of healthy socialization and well-being; thus, mapping the neurocognitive mechanisms that contribute to processing such stimuli is critical. My graduate research focused on the behavioral and neural correlates of emotion processing across multiple modalities (e.g., facial expression and emotional speech prosody), and how a major contextual factor, culture, influences these processes. More recently, I have extended this line of work to children and adolescents, and have studied normative processing of facial expressions and emotional prosody in typically developing youth. This line of basic research provides the normative context and validation of neural measures for studying maladaptive processing and atypical development in at-risk youth.
Biased emotion processing and atypical developmentGrounded in the knowledge of basic science of emotion processing, I also study how individual differences in emotion processing confer risk for youth internalizing problems. Biased emotion processing at various stages is associated with internalizing problems and can be reliably measured before the emergence of significant impairment. Along this line, I have studied the neural mechanisms of attentional bias toward threatening information as a cognitive risk for youth anxiety, and negative bias in processing self-referential information (e.g., self-schemas) as a cognitive risk for youth depression. This work bridges basic research of normative emotional development to developmental psychopathology, and points to avenues of targeted prevention that could diminish early risks and prevent the emergence of clinical disorder.
Implications for prevention/interventionPrevention strategies that target mechanistic vulnerabilities such as biased cognitive processing have the potential to prevent negative outcomes and to inform causal theory. As part of my postdoctoral training, I worked on the first randomized controlled trial examining the use of a computerized attentional bias modification task (ABM) in children at greater risk for anxiety. I found that ABM significantly reduces high-risk children’s anxiety symptoms, which is underpinned by enhanced vlPFC activation and reduced amygdala activation during a facial dot-probe task. These findings provide evidence for the potential of ABM as an effective and economical prevention tool, and support the role of the fronto-limbic network in mediating early attentional risk for anxiety. Further, given the role of self-referential processing bias in portending depression, I am also interested in manipulating youth’s self-schemas (e.g., diminishing negative ones and boosting positive ones) as a potential way of reducing depressive symptoms.