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Past Studies


Theta Burst Stimulation (TBS)

Depression is a chronic, impairing form of psychopathology that is one of the world’s leading causes of disability. Brain connectivity and activity in a region in the prefrontal cortex (the dmPFC) has recently been identified as a biomarker for some types of depression. In addition to this, other studies have shown changes in dmPFC connectivity after transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS), a non-invasive brain stimulation technique that manipulates cortical excitability, in people with depression. In this study, we further explored the feasibility of stimulation to alter neural activity and connectivity A mix of functional MRI and TMS were used to examine the acute effects of theta-burst stimulation (TBS) to the dmPFC in 36 young adults with depression (18-25 years). Participation involved 5 trips into the lab and includes an interview, questionnaires, computer tasks, fMRI scans, and theta-burst stimulation.

        Current Collaborators

LGB Youth and Motivation Study

This study focused on 16-20 year olds who identified as lesbian, gay, or bisexual or who experience any same-sex attraction. LGB youth are particularly at risk for developing mental health problems over the course of adolescence. Because of this mental health disparity, we thought it was especially important to study how this group of people develops. We involved 40 LGB youth in our study to better understand the neural, behavioral, and social correlates of mental health symptoms. This study involved an fMRI brain scan, an interview, surveys, and computer games. 

Mood and Motivation

Anhedonia, or the loss of interest or pleasure in daily life and activities, is a symptom of various mental health disorders such as depression, bipolar disorder, and schizophrenia. We recruited 145 adolescents, ages 13-17, who had a parent or sibling with a history of depression, bipolar disorder, or schizophrenia. The participating adolescents had little to no history of mental health disorders themselves. Analyses focused on understanding how anhedonia developed in this high-risk sample and how it affected brain function over the course of adolescence.

       Current Collaborators

Cognitive Inflexibility in Eating Disorders

This study was conducted to better understand whether the importance of two facets of cognitive inflexibility – attentional set-shifting and reversal learning – were related to differences in eating disorder presentation. Women and men between the ages of 18 and 55 with anorexia nervosa and bulimia nervosa as well as healthy adults were assessed using a battery of behavioral assessments that include interviews, questionnaires, and computer tasks. To examine neural correlates, images of the brain were taken using an MRI scan while the individual completed tasks designed to capture differences in attentional set-shifting and reversal learning. 

Depression and Inflammation

This study was groundbreaking for its integration of several areas of research to answer a pressing question about mental health: do inflammatory processes lead to anhedonia and depression in young people? The areas incorporated into the study included inflammation and depression; the neuroscience of emotion and reward function; and the early development and course of depression. We recruited a sample of 50 young people aged 13-19 who had a parent or sibling with depression but had not developed depression themselves. In this high-risk sample, we measured circulating levels of cytokines and growth factors; brain function in response to reward; anhedonia (through behavior, brain function, and experience); and depression. We conducted a follow-up assessment of anhedonia and depression 6 months after the original visit. Analyses focused on the association between inflammation and brain response to reward and inflammation and the initial severity and change in depressive symptoms. Our measurement of anhedonia allowed us to test, in an exploratory way, whether this symptom occurred as an intermediate step between inflammation and depression. Funding Source: Brain and Behavior Research Foundation

Learning about Girls' Emotions

This study investigated the development of depression in 232 girls recruited at ages 5-8 from the Pittsburgh community as part of the Pittsburgh Girls’ Study. Participants were part of a longitudinal study of risk for mental health problems and conduct problems, and we assessed depression, stressful life events, and brain structure and function annually from age 15-19. The girls in this study were in the sensitive developmental period for the onset of depression—and the emergence of sex differences in depression.  We examined how their neural responses to rewarding and emotional stimuli contributed, in combination with their developmental histories and their experience of stress, to the development of depression. Funding Source: NIH R01 MH093605

Substance Use in Young Men: Genes, Social Development and Brain Function

This study examined patterns of drug and alcohol use in young men who have been part of a longitudinal study of mental health and addiction since age 18. That study, the Pitt Mother-Child Project, has collected detailed information on characteristics such as social context, family environment, impulsivity, genetic polymorphisms, and behavioral and emotional problems. Now, while these participants entered adulthood, we conducted functional and structural brain imaging at 2 time points to investigate how brain development, combined with other characteristics, contributed to the development of substance use. Funding Source: NIH RO1 DA026222

The Social Brain Network

Adolescents are notorious for doing risky things, especially when they’re with friends. How can we capture the brain function that signals which adolescents will engage in reward-seeking behavior or develop reward-related problems? This study aimed to develop a new functional neuroimaging paradigm to capture adolescents’ brain responses to a potent reward: positive affect expressed by a close friend during a fun conversation. Healthy adolescents from the Pittsburgh community came into the lab twice. First, they had an interaction with a close friend about a fun experience they’d had. Then, they came back for a brain scan in which they saw videos of their friend from the interaction. This technique helped to capture reward responses more than traditional techniques that use standardized stimuli such as posed faces or money. We also measured their real-life behavior and mood in their usual environments using experience sampling. We aimed to discover how brain response to a friend’s positive emotion could tell us who develops reward-related problems such as sensation-seeking, HIV-risk behavior, and mood problems.