Affective Neuroscience of Trauma and Resilience Lab

Director: Elizabeth Olson, Ph.D.

The Affective Neuroscience of Trauma and Resilience (ANTARES) lab conducts research on social, cognitive, and affective processes in psychopathology and resilience, with our work currently focusing on stress and trauma, reward processing, and social engagement. Broadly, our group is interested in changes in affective, cognitive, and social processing in people who have been exposed to stress, trauma, and/or childhood maltreatment, including individuals with posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD). While powerful translational models of deficits in fear learning have contributed to a deep understanding of fear circuitry abnormalities following trauma exposure, other aspects of PTSD pathology remain poorly characterized and understood.

Our lab is particularly interested in these non-fear-based aspects of posttraumatic psychopathology, including changes in aspects of cognition (cognitive effort, sensory processing), affect (anhedonia, irritability), and social functioning (social cognition, social withdrawal). We are interested in how these processes may make some individuals more vulnerable to developing psychopathology after trauma exposure, as well as in how trauma exposure and PTSD may cause changes in cognition, affect, and social behavior. We address these questions using techniques including behavioral paradigms (delay/probability discounting, trust task), self-report (ecological momentary assessment, questionnaires), digital phenotyping (active and passive cell-phone based metrics), and multimodal neuroimaging techniques (diffusion tensor imaging, resting state fMRI, task-based fMRI).

Current research questions under investigation in our lab include:

  • Can we use neuroimaging to predict which trauma-exposed individuals develop progressive social withdrawal?
  • Is social withdrawal related to changes in the way the brain processes social rewards in women exposed to physical or sexual abuse or assault?
  • How do reward-processing deficits evolve over the complete course of traumatic experience (pre-trauma, peritraumatic period, posttraumatic period)?
  • Do sensory processing changes contribute to posttraumatic irritability?

Ongoing Research Projects  in the ANTARES Lab

SATURN (Social behavior After Trauma: Understanding Resilience & Neural circuitry)

We have started a new study, funded by a NIMH R01 in September 2021, to expand on our research into social functioning following trauma, with a focus on social withdrawal in youth. Individuals with a history of interpersonal trauma exposure are at risk for progressive social withdrawal during the transition to adulthood (ages 16-20), and although social withdrawal is strongly associated with detrimental health outcomes, neurobiological processes that contribute to social withdrawal following trauma exposure have not been identified. The goals of this study are to (1) identify how connectivity within a specified neural circuit is associated with baseline social withdrawal as well as change in social withdrawal over time, and (2) develop predictive algorithms that can forecast future social withdrawal based on baseline connectivity within the circuit. In the long term, this study may clarify how connectivity within this brain circuit contributes to progressive social withdrawal, leading to the development of interventions that target this circuit. Ultimately, we hope that this research will highlight the important role of reward processing abnormalities in contributing to social withdrawal in trauma-exposed individuals.

Social Withdrawal Following Trauma Exposure

Impaired social functioning is a frequent and disabling consequence of trauma-related disorders. Although social withdrawal results in widespread disability in trauma-exposed populations, little is known about the neurobiological mechanisms underlying this dysfunction. In this project, social withdrawal following trauma exposure is conceptualized as resulting from dysregulation within brain reward pathways. We use a neuroeconomic paradigm, the Trust Task, to probe alterations in social reward functioning in trauma-exposed women. Possible contributions of a stress peptide, pituitary adenylate cyclase-activating polypeptide (PACAP), implicated in changes in social behavior following stress exposure, will be identified. The central hypothesis is that in trauma-exposed populations, the extent of social withdrawal (decreased social network size) will be predicted by alterations in both Trust Task behavior and abnormal reward-related neural signaling in the ventral striatum, dorsal striatum, and medial prefrontal cortex. By using neuroeconomic paradigms to characterize alterations in reward circuitry that contribute to social withdrawal, the proposed research represents a substantive departure from the status quo. To summarize, the project will advance understanding of the neural mechanisms underlying social withdrawal following trauma exposure. This research is funded by a NIMH K23 award.

Reward valuation in posttraumatic stress disorder: contribution of nucleus accumbens-insula circuitry

Posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is associated with increased rates of externalizing disorders, as well as alcohol/substance use disorders, and suicidal behavior. Biological dysregulations in the way the brain processes rewards may play a significant role in the increased likelihood of these behaviors in PTSD. The purpose of this study is to identify how brain circuits may contribute to changes in the way the brain processes rewards in PTSD. We are also studying healthy comparison subjects who don’t have PTSD. We are focusing on how interactions between two brain regions, the nucleus accumbens and the anterior insula, may contribute to changes in the way the brain processes rewards following a trauma. By understanding the potential changes that trauma exposure may have on reward processing, it may lead to improved behavioral therapies that are able to specifically target symptoms of PTSD that are currently difficult to treat. This research is funded through a NARSAD Young Investigator Award from the Brain and Behavior Research Foundation.

STress and Resilience In Prenatal Partners (STRIPP): feasibility study

Hospitalization of a child in the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) is a well-documented severe stressor for the parent, resulting in elevated rates of anxiety, depression, and posttraumatic stress symptoms. Although some premorbid and perinatal risk factors have been identified as increasing the risk of development of stress-related psychopathology after NICU exposure, no studies to date have included assessment of parents prior to the NICU hospitalization. Studying the stress response in partners allows for separation of physical versus psychological effects of trauma exposure, since in partners the stressor of NICU exposure does not involve physical trauma. Identifying partners during high-risk pregnancies and assessing them prior to the NICU hospitalization provides a unique opportunity to identify premorbid parental characteristics that predict the development of stress-related psychopathology. The aim of this study is to establish feasibility of a program of research involving enrolling partners during high-risk pregnancies, phenotyping prior to traumatic event (NICU) exposure, and following up longitudinally for six months following exposure. Ultimately the aim is to develop predictive models to predict conversion to stress-related disorders following traumatic event exposure. This project will demonstrate feasibility and provide pilot data for a set of further projects gathering biometric (e.g. actigraphy) and ultimately neuroimaging data prior to traumatic event exposure. This research is funded through a McLean Hospital Presidential Award.