HEAD Lab (Guyer)

The Human Experiences and Affective Development (HEAD) Laboratory, which Amanda Guyer oversees, uses cognitive neuroscience methods to examine development of social and affective brain systems in adolescents.

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Research Topics

Adolescent Psychopathology

Psychologists have long focused on how the brain is involved in our emotional experiences. The marked changes seen in affect systems in adolescence, such as heightened emotional reactivity and the substantial increase in psychopathology involving dysregulated affect, make it a unique developmental period in which to study the role of the brain in these processes. Projects in the HEAD lab focus on brain-behavior relationships in information processing and developmental shifts in neural circuitry to understand the emergence of psychopathology during adolescence. We examine behavioral and neural correlates of affective processing as it relates to social stimuli (e.g., facial emotion and social evaluation) and non-social stimuli (e.g., monetary incentives). We also investigate associations among social contextual risk and protective factors and neural mechanisms that are associated with anxiety, depression and substance use.

 

Depression in Adolescent Girls

Depression is more likely to arise in adolescence than in childhood, and higher rates of depression in females typically emerge during adolescence. These patterns suggest that vulnerability for depression in females may be rooted in neurodevelopmental mechanisms, given the continued development in adolescence of the neural circuits that support cognitive and emotional regulation. Our Pittsburgh-based studies in this area seek to identify which girls are at greatest risk for developing depressive disorders, and whether different pathways to developing mature interconnections between brain circuits explain individual differences in risk for depression.

 

Sensitivity to Social Influences

Numerous factors can make some adolescents more susceptible than others to developing problems with using drugs and alcohol. Those variables may include parenting characteristics, peer relationships and brain function. In this line of research, we seek to assess brain function as a measure of neurobiological sensitivity to positive and negative social contextual influences. This research could lead to a means of identifying adolescents who are at greatest risk for, or most resistant to, substance use problems.

 

Neurobiological Processes of Depression

We are conducting research in our lab to examine the development of depressed mood and depressive disorder among Mexican-origin adolescents 16 to 18 years of age. Using fMRI brain imaging and psychophysiological (e.g., heart rate, skin conductance) measurements, we are studying neurobiological systems in relation to psychosocial influences on the emergence and maintenance of depression. Our goal is to characterize neurobiological processes that underlie reactivity to emotional, social and reward cues. We also are probing how gender, sociocultural and environmental adversity contribute to the development of depression problems in Mexican-origin youths.

 

Risk for Anxiety in Adolescence

Anxiety disorders are among the most common mental illnesses among adolescents. Behavioral inhibition is an early-life predisposition for withdrawal from social stimuli; it predicts high risk for adolescent anxiety, particularly social anxiety. In this program of research, we are trying to determine whether adolescents with social anxiety or a history of temperamental risk for anxiety share anomalies in amygdala, striatal and prefrontal circuitry reflecting hypersensitivity to motivationally salient nonsocial and social stimuli.