We have many ongoing projects in the lab. Here are some examples of the topics we are currently investigating.
Healthy Brains Project
In collaboration with investigators at Temple University (https://sites.temple.edu/ellmanlab/) and the Child Health and Development Studies (CHDS; http://www.chdstudies.org/) in Berkeley, we are investigating influences on brain health throughout development, including early life and prenatal development. This is a new follow-up study of children whose mothers enrolled in the CHDS in the 1960s. The CHDS enrolled nearly 30,000 pregnant women between 1959 and 1967 at Kaiser Oakland, and this cohort of mothers and offspring have been followed for 60 years. Our follow-up study is examining predictors of overall health, cognitive functioning, and brain structure and function using a multi-method approach (interviews, multi-modal brain imaging, cognitive testing, emotion and social functioning). We are investigating how early developmental variables might influence clinical, cognitive, and neural outcomes in the now middle-age offspring.
The Nature of Pleasure and Anhedonia
Anhedonia refers to diminished capacity to experience pleasure, and it is a common clinical feature of depression and schizophrenia. In schizophrenia, we think that the anhedonic deficit lies in anticipatory processes. In addition, we are studying how high levels of experienced negative affect in schizophrenia may interfere with the experience or anticipation of pleasure.
We are also studying domains of pleasure, focusing particularly on social motivation and pleasure, asking questions including: What motivates us to be social? Why do we enjoy some social encounters more than others? What are the correlates and consequences of anticipatory social pleasure? What are the barriers that interfere with social interactions and pleasure for people with schizophrenia? How does social exclusion influence anhedonia?
Assessing and Treating Negative Symptoms in Schizophrenia
Negative symptoms in schizophrenia (diminished expression, diminished social motivation, anhedonia) remain a huge unmet treatment need. Our lab was part of the Collaboration to Advance Negative Symptom Assessment in Schizophrenia (CANSAS), along with Jack Blanchard, PhD, Raquel Gur, MD, and William Horan, PhD. We developed a clinical rating scale, the Clinical Assessment Interview Scale (CAINS) to better assess these symptoms. We use the CAINS in our ongoing studies of schizophrenia.
We have developed and piloted two different psychosocial treatments that target mechanisms contributing to negative symptoms. One is a skills based group treatment called Awareness and Coping with Emotion in Schizophrenia (ACES). Another is a meditation focused treatment that was developed in collaboration with David Penn, Ph.D. and Barbara Fredrickson, Ph.D. of the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill.
Currently, we have combined these two treatments into a new intervention – MOTIVATE – which works on mindfulness, goals, strengths, meditation, values, savoring, positives, and emotion. We completed our first pilot in Spring 2019 and are planning additional pilot studies in 2019-2020.
The Time Course of Emotion
We are exploring the time course of emotion using behavioral, psychophysiological, self-report, and fMRI methods. We study healthy individuals and individuals with schizophrenia or depression. In a series of studies, we are examining maintenance and anticipation of emotional responses among individuals with and without schizophrenia. The maintenance of an emotional response is critical for guiding future behavior and decision making. Data from our lab indicate that people with schizophrenia have no trouble responding to emotional stimuli in-the-moment, as reflected by self-report, emotion modulation of the startle response, and brain activation. However, people with schizophrenia appear to have difficulty maintaining an emotional response once evocative stimuli are removed from view.
We also study anticipatory processes. Anticipatory pleasure can be further parsed into two components: (1) predicting the future experience of pleasure, and (2) the concurrent experience of pleasure knowing that a future activity is going to occur – that is, the pleasure experienced in anticipation of things to come. The ability to predict or “forecast” into the future about pleasure involves a number of complex cognitive processes that have been well-characterized among healthy individuals .
In our work on anticipatory processes, we are trying to better understand the nature of anhedonic deficits in schizophrenia so that we may develop better treatments to help improve the lives of people with schizophrenia.Our lab has found that people with schizophrenia do not predict as much enjoyment from future activities as do people without schizophrenia nor do they generally feel positive emotions as strongly when thinking about the future. We are interested in understanding how anticipation is linked to goal-directed behavior, the computation of effort, and associative learning. We are also interested in understanding how the brain responds to anticipation of different types of positive outcomes (e.g., winning money or receiving a smile from another person) and to different types of negative outcomes (e.g., losing money or receiving a scowl from another person).
Emotion and Cognition
People with schizophrenia who have difficulty maintaining emotional responses also exhibit difficulties in attention, such that people who were better at a task requiring top-down attentional processes, including goal maintenance, were better able to maintain their emotional response once the picture was removed from view. In collaboration with investigators at UC Davis , we are working to understand how the brain supports emotion processing in schizophrenia and how emotion is linked with memory, attention, and language (http://carterlab.ucdavis.edu). We are testing the hypothesis that specific cognitive control functions normally supported by the prefrontal cortex are impaired in schizophrenia, and that these cognitive control functions can help account for some of the emotion deficits observed in schizophrenia.
We are also interested in the extent to which memory of emotional experiences and events is used to guide anticipatory processes, and we are studying the links between memory, emotion, and anticipation in people with and without schizophrenia.