Our Focus Areas

Our Focus Areas

At the Center for Affective Neuroscience, we focus on four overlapping focus areas. All of our research brings together world-class pre-clinical and clinical researchers to study depression, addiction, personality disorders, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and other affective disorders. Our four focus areas are as follow.

Affective Processing in Decision Making

Our emotional state influences how we experience the ups and downs of our daily lives. It affects how we reason, what we remember, and the way we make decisions. People who have psychiatric conditions, such as depression or anxiety, can find their ability to process these experiences is so compromised that they cannot lead a normal life. Our Center aims to understand how healthy brains process and remember information during emotional events, to determine what happens when these processes fail, and to discover new treatments to return the brain to a healthy state.

We are studying the ways our brains process information and react to it, and how everyday events can cause difficulties for people with an affective disorder. We are making progress in the study and treatment of depression, addiction, anxiety, and PTSD, especially, and other affective neuropathic conditions.

Section chiefs Erin Rich, MD, PhD, and Peter Rudebeck, PhD, are leading our efforts in this section.

Threat Learning and Memory

If you experience a stimulus during a threatening experience, it can become a trigger for defensive emotional reactions such as anxiety, avoidant behavior, and fear. These triggers can make it more difficult to deal with conditions like post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), phobias, and other anxiety-related disorders. These researchers are working to identify the specific ways triggers affect our thinking in both normal and pathological conditions. We are working to develop more effective therapies for people with these conditions.

Our researchers in the Threat Learning and Memory focus area follow section chiefs Roger Clem, PhD, and Denise Cai, PhD.

Reward and Motivation

Our brains are designed to help us survive. Reward systems in the brain encourage us to behave in certain ways that ensure our survival. Many psychiatric conditions are marked by abnormalities in our reward system’s functions. These abnormalities manifest as an inability to enjoy pleasurable activities, as is the case with depression, or as inappropriate associations to rewarding stimuli, as is the case with addiction and antisocial personality disorder. We are working to understand how the brain encodes rewarding stimuli and determine what goes wrong under pathological states. We are developing new therapies to treat psychiatric illness, especially antisocial personality disorder, depression, and addiction, through the work of our researchers in the Reward and Motivation focus area, led by sections chief Scott Russo, PhD.

Social Cognition

Although we often seem to confront it effortlessly, navigating the social aspects of our world is a daunting and difficult task. The existence of hidden social skills becomes obvious when they go awry, as is evident with many psychiatric disorders. Social anxiety disorder, for example, is a persistent, out-of-proportion fear of social situations. If we sense that embarrassment, or scrutiny by others may occur, those feelings or worries can cause considerable distress, and impair the ability to function as usual, in the case of someone experiencing an affective disorder. Other examples of flawed social awareness include the difficulties handling interpersonal relationships, social isolation, and social dysfunction which may accompany depressive disorders and schizophrenia, or the deceitful and aggressive behavior, and failure to conform to social norms, which are both characteristics associated with psychopathy. Within the Social Cognition focus area, we aim to decipher the neural mechanisms of social behavior and to map impairments in social cognitive information processing onto social dysfunction across psychiatric disorders. The research team for the Social Cognition focus area falls under section chiefs Mercedes de las Perez-Rodriguez, MD, PhD, and Daniela Schiller, PhD.