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Research

 

We have many ongoing projects in the lab. Here are some examples of the topics we are currently investigating. 

 

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. 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). 

 

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 the anticipation of future events, what we term anticipatory pleasure. 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.  

 

We are also studying social 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?

 

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. We collaborate with investigators at UC Davis 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.  

 

 

Context, Emotion, and Gender 

Perception of emotion in everyday life requires not only the perception of emotion, but also the perception of surrounding contextual information and the integration of this information with other signals in order to make sense of what is being observed. We are studying the ways in which context influences emotion experience and perception, how emotion influences our attention to different aspects of surrounding context, and how mismatches between context and emotion expression influence decision making.

 

We have learned a good deal about the nature of emotional responding in schizophrenia, yet most of this work has been with men. Preliminary findings from our lab suggest that diminished emotional expression is also observed among women with schizophrenia along with intact reports of emotional experience.

 

Assessing and Treating Negative Symptoms in Schizophrenia

Negative symptoms in schizophrenia (diminshed 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 have developed a new 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 a skills based group treatment called Awareness and Coping with Emotion in Schizophrenia (ACES) that we have tested in a pilot project. We are hoping to test this intervention in a systematic follow up study.

 

In collaboration with David Penn, Ph.D. and Barbara Fredrickson, Ph.D. of the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, we are working to develop and test a psychosocial treatment for negative symptoms that incorporates findings on anhedonia, emotion, and meditation practices.