As part of the human experience, we regularly encounter situations that stir up strong emotions, both positive and negative. The way we deal with these experiences at the moment they occur and into the future depends on our abilities to execute control over our emotions and cognitions through emotion regulation, encoding and retrieval, and a variety of other executive functions. What we bring to bear in dealing with emotional situations is shaped by many factors, including our past experiences and memories, brain function, and genetics.

Sometimes, the experience of traumatic experiences can lead to posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), a condition that involves persistent reexperiencing of the negative traumatic event, physiological arousal, and avoidance and numbing. Traumatic experiences are sometimes complicated by head injury that can compromise one’s ability to deal with the traumatic situation. The research conducted in this laboratory investigates functional and structural brain changes associated with PTSD and traumatic brain injury (TBI) that can lead to disturbances in emotion and neurocognitive function. Examples of current research projects include:

Understanding encoding of traumatic memories: PTSD can in some ways be considered a disorder of memory, as a hallmark symptom of this disorder is involuntary, persistent, and unwanted recollections of the traumatic event. We are exploring how traumatic experiences may alter encoding and consolidation of memory that may lead to future reexperiencing and reliving of the traumatic event.

Understanding the neural effects of emotion regulation on PTSD symptomatology: There are individual differences in how we deal with negative situations. Some emotion regulation strategies, such as cognitive reappraisal, are associated with better anxiety management than strategies of emotional suppression. The aim of our emotion regulation research is to understand the brain regions associated with helpful emotion regulation strategies in order to refine treatment for PTSD.

Understanding how traumatic brain injury, including that sustained from explosive blasts, affects brain structure and function and comorbidity with PTSD: Exposure to traumatic brain injury (TBI) from explosive ordnance is a pervasive threat for military personnel deployed to Afghanistan and Iraq. However, the consequences of blast injury may be not be immediately obvious, affecting patients’ access to support and treatment. We are investigating neurocognitive and neuroimaging biomarkers of mild TBI, as well as potential treatments for individuals with comorbid TBI and PTSD.