Research projects in our lab are focused upon children's emotional development and the relationship between early emotional experience and child psychopathology. We are particularly interested in understanding two related aspects of emotional development:
- What are the mechanisms of normal emotional development? To what extent are emotions shaped by nature and nurture? Does it make sense to try and separate biology and experience?
- How are emotions related to the development of psychopathology in children? Might the development of emotional processes help explain the link between people's early experiences and later development of psychological difficulties?
We are currently using social and affective neuroscience approaches to understand normal and atypical child development.
- Cognitive and biological aspects of typical emotional development
Several projects explore the processes and patterns of functional specializations of emotion processing in "normal" children aged 3 - 12 years. Our empirical work always begins with samples of typically developing children. These studies then serve as the point of departure for our studies of neuroplasticity, atypical development, and risk for psychopathology. Ongoing projects include studies of the processing of faces, emotion recognition and perception, memory for emotion, and regulation of emotional states. This approach provides a basic understanding of the architecture and origins of emotion systems/processes.
- The effects of child maltreatment on emotion processes and risk for psychopathology
A central problem in examining any behavior where nature-nurture interactions are suspected involves the manipulation of these two sources of variance. We use behavioral and psychophysiological measures to study children who have had different kinds of emotional experiences in order to assess the degree to which biological biases in cerebral development depend upon and can be modified by input from the environment. Studies of emotion processing in maltreated children suggest that certain aspects of emotional development are influenced by experience. These include the perception of cues representing threat and the regulation of attention to certain aspects of emotion. These results imply that some neural systems are more modifiable by (and dependent upon) early sensory experience than are others. Using several different experimental approaches, we are exploring the mechanisms that link early emotional experiences with heightened risk for the development of psychopathology.
- The neurobehavioral correlates of early deprivation
The Wisconsin International Adoption Project is investigating the successes, challenges, and needs of children who spent some early part of their lives in institutional, orphanage, or foster care settings. The research conducted by the WIAP will provide answers and aid to families, community agencies, adoption professionals, educators, and medical professionals to help children and families reach their full potential. We use both behavioral and psycho-physiological measures to study children who joined their families through international adoption in order to assess how early deprivation effects children's development. We are particularly interested in the neurobiological bases of the problems often exhibited in attention/executive functions, sensory integration and emotion regulation. Our work reflects interest in brain development and neural plasticity coupled with the continued controversies over the importance of early experiences and questions about sensitive periods. The marked change in living environments typically experienced with international adoption, from impoverished to enriched, allows a way to estimate both the duration and ages during which deprivation was experienced. Taken together, our studies will provide a more specific picture of the potential neural compromises resulting from early deprivation as well as highlighting those aspects of brain-behavior development that appear to be spared.