Newsletter Article

Faculty Interdisciplinary Research Pilot Awards

The Psychology Department held its first funding competition for Faculty Interdisciplinary Research Pilot Awards (FIRPA) last spring. These projects aimed to generate exciting research questions that connect different sub-areas of the department. The first round of recipients represented a variety of departmental research areas, including child and adult clinical psychology, behavioral neuroscience, developmental psychology, and social psychology, and asked questions at the nexus of trauma, memory, autism, culture, and school violence. The three winning projects are featured below.


Stone_1 Sommerville (1)
Wendy Stone Jessica Sommerville

Drs. Wendy Stone (Child Clinical) and Jessica Somerville (Developmental) received funding for The Social Attention Study, which is exploring whether differences in social attention and responding are evident in the first year of life among infants who are at elevated risk for a later Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) diagnosis.  Mechanisms of social development are being explored, by asking whether parental characteristics of empathy, prosociality, and subclinical features of ASD are related to early individual differences in social attention and responding. The longitudinal and cross-sectional samples comprise infants at low-risk for ASD and those at high-risk. Infants at high-risk are those who have an older sibling with an ASD diagnosis, as they have a one in five chance of receiving a later diagnosis, as compared to a prevalence rate of one in 68 in the general population. The project will provide greater insight into early social development by determining how infants’ tendencies to respond to various social and emotional stimuli might be related to each other, and what patterns of interrelations emerge throughout the first year of life.


_0021_c_zoellner_190 jeansok_kim_127x190 (1)
Lori Zoellner Jeansok Kim

Professors Lori Zoellner (Adult Clinical), Jeansok Kim (Behavioral Neuroscience), and Libby Marks (doctoral student Adult Clinical), received funding for a project examining how to intervene with the fear-learning process to help reduce intrusive re-experiencing (i.e., cued memories, nightmares, out-of-the-blue intrusions), a source of vulnerability for those with depression and posttraumatic stress disorder, PTSD).  They used a distressing film paradigm (fear acquisition; clip from ‘The Last King of Scotland') to induce intrusive memories as an analogue to a real-life traumatic event and later re-exposed participants to a brief neutral "cue" image of the film within what is known as the "reconsolidation window." This window is thought to make the memory more vulnerable to modification during a subsequent period of repeated presentation of the film (fear extinction).  Markers of stress and synaptic plasticity were also collected, including salivary cortisol, alpha-amylase, and heart rate. 

Those who received the neutral cue within the reconsolidation window reported fewer intrusions 48 hours later than those who received a more distressing, negative cue, arguing that the valence of the cue may be important for facilitating later intrusion reduction.  However, those receiving the neutral cue did not differ in later intrusions from those who received an out of the window cue or a scrambled cue.  This suggests negative within-window cues, in particular, may inhibit fear reduction and maintain intrusive symptoms.  Next steps include examining individual trajectories of stress responding during extinction, including analysis of heart rate data, as a possible mediator of intrusions.  Given the exciting potential application of reconsolidation to enhance therapies for anxiety and traumatic stress disorders, this work of honing boundary conditions of retrieval cues specifically and reconsolidation more broadly are critical.

Fryberg Mclaughlin Olson
Stephanie Fryberg Katie McLaughlin Kristina Olson

Drs. Stephanie Fryberg (Social Psychology), Katie McLaughlin (Child Clinical), and Kristina Olson (Developmental Psychology) began a project examining how people respond to trauma and how these responses differ depending on a person’s cultural background and closeness to the traumatic event. They investigated coping behavior and socio-emotional outcomes following a school shooting in a local school district that serves both a local tribal community and a neighboring city. They found that the impact of the shooting was felt widely across the school district, as opposed to being limited to the school in which the shooting occurred. In particular, schools with large Native populations (who therefore have tribal ties with some of the victims of the shooting and the shooter), reported negative student behaviors (such as withdrawal, fear, outbursts, aggression, etc.), at rates indistinguishable from the location of the school shooting. Individuals within the former schools reported significant adjustments to their interactions with students, parents, colleagues, and family members in order to provide support to those around them and garner support for themselves. In addition to behavioral indicators of maladjustment, people also reported heightened negative emotions, feelings of avoidance of thinking about the event, and catastrophizing. Although the data suggest that individuals are improving as time has moved from the event, there is also evidence of long-term negative effects on community relations. In particular, immediately following the shooting, people reported that the tribal community and the neighboring city were brought closer together by the event; however, this immediate unity is breaking down, and people are reporting a growing divide between the two communities.