General Research Overview
In the Emotional Cognition Lab, our research is principally aimed at determining how dissociable neurocognitive systems integrate emotion with cognition and behaviour. The work is designed to provide fundamental knowledge about the functional neuroanatomy behind the experience and control of emotions such as fear, anxiety, depression, and anger. We are also simultaneously committed to translating this work to address clinical issues. We firmly believe that in order to significantly improve the diagnosis and treatment of neuropsychiatric disorders, it will be essential to delineate how the human brain functions to give rise to both adaptive and maladaptive emotions and moods. Accordingly, our efforts to address fundamental questions about emotion-cognition interactions serve as a critical springboard for our work involving clinical populations. For example, we apply emerging techniques and findings from Affective Cognitive Neuroscience to elucidate the pathophysiology of a range of psychiatric disorders from externalizing disorders, which can feature difficulties with empathy and aggression, to mood and anxiety disorders. We also use these techniques to identify and assess existing and novel treatments. Our approach includes fMRI, psychophysiological, and neuropsychological methods in healthy individuals, patients with developmental or acute mental illness, and neurological patients. We have received funding from both basic research and clinically focussed agencies, including the Canadian Institutes of Health Research, Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada, Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council, and the Ontario Mental Health Foundation.
Current Lines of Research:
The Impact of Emotion on Cognition and Human Performance Emotion has a tremendous impact on our behaviour, sometimes enhancing performance, but other times contributing to human error in dangerous contexts. In addition, emerging work suggests that some thought processes and behaviours are remarkably resilient to emotional contexts. The effect that emotion has on brain and behaviour seems to depend on a number of factors that are poorly understood. The goal of this line of research is to determine how the human brain prioritizes and controls the influence of emotional information and stress to optimize behavioural and cognitive performance. In addition, we identify factors and mechanisms associated with optimizing performance in emotionally charged environments. The work has implications for designing instruments and operating panels for equipment used in stressful environments (e.g., emergency response and defence), and for training and selecting personnel that use this equipment. Individual differences in empathy and social cognition in the general population. Even among healthy, typically developing people, individual differences in empathic processes can have a significant impact on social and occupational functioning. What is becoming increasingly clear is that low trait empathy is one of the strongest predictors of aggression and antisocial behaviour. This line of research aims to advance knowledge about how individual differences in distinct subtypes of empathy interact with other cognitive and situational factors to govern social behaviour in healthy adults. Ultimately, it will help identify factors that increase or reduce empathic responding in people, and provide clues about how current practices in education, the media, and entertainment might affect the development of prosocial and antisocial behaviours.
Modulating empathy in disorders featuring clinically significant levels of social dysfunction
The long-term goals of this line of research is to: a) delineate the neurobiological abnormalities associated with empathic disorders that increase the risk for violence or other antisocial behaviours; and b) use this knowledge together with the tools of cognitive neuroscience to help identify and test newly emerging diagnostic, preventative, and therapeutic measures for empathic disorders. Using neuroimaging and behavioural techniques, we are currently examining novel pharmacological and behavioural interventions to increase psychosocial functioning in patients with frontotemporal dementia, a disorder with pronounced empathy impairments. We are also examining whether new behavioural techniques, derived from recent advances in fundamental cognitive neuroscience work, can increase indices of empathic responding in youth with severe behavioural difficulties at both a neural and behavioural level.