Psychology

Terry Blumenthal
A Simple Measure for Studying Gating Deficits
Awarded $14,000 for the period 7/1/06 to 6/30/07
Source: National Institutes of Health (NIH)

This project seeks to develop a direct, stable, reliable, quantitative measure of sensory gating in humans and to determine whether it can detect sensory gating deficits in clinical populations. Dr. Blumenthal serves as a consultant for the studies, which are conducted in the laboratory of Dr. Neal Swerdlow at the University of California, San Diego. Failures in the normal suppression, or gating, of sensory information are associated with cognitive disturbances in schizophrenia and sensory tics and premonitory urges that often precede motor and vocal tics in Tourette’s Syndrome patients. One laboratory approach to studying deficient gating uses prestimulus effects on motor events (prepulse inhibition of startle, or PPI). Another measure, prepulse inhibition of perceived stimulus intensity, or PPIPSI, is assessed by a direct report of the perceived intensity of a probe stimulus in the presence and absence of a prestimulus. Under appropriate conditions, subjects report that they perceive an intense, abrupt stimulus – for example, a 118 dB noise burst, a 40 psi air puff, or a 170 V cutaneous shock – as less intense, if it is preceded by a weak prepulse. This project aims to establish PPIPSI’s utility in systematic studies of sensory gating in normal and disordered populations. Studies will determine: 1) conditions for eliciting maximal gating effects; 2) test/retest stability; 3) reliability across experimental settings; 4) generalizability across sensory modalities; 5) sensitivity in children; 6) the impact of attentional manipulations; and 7) utility in detecting deficits in patients with schizophrenia or Tourette’s Syndrome.

Dale Dagenbach, see Janine Jennings

William Fleeson

  • and R. Michael Furr
    The Beacon Project: Founding a Field of the Morally Exceptional
    Awarded $3,938,451 for the period 8/17/15 to 8/16/18
    Source: Templeton Religion Trust

The project aims (a) to spark a field of study on the morally exceptional similar in scope to the study of exceptional cognitive talent; (b) to integrate philosophical, theological, and psychological expertise to characterize them; and (c) to answer big questions about them. Specifically, it will request and support proposals from scholars around the world and at Wake Forest for research on the morally exceptional; hold two research conferences and a summer seminar; and develop a relevant website and a campus reading group and lecture series.

  • Integrating process and structure in borderline personality disorder 
    Awarded $289,262 for the period 4/11/14 to 11/30/14
    Source: NIH

Borderline personality disorder (BPD), often considered chronic and untreatable, is associated with severe personal distress, suicidality, interpersonal instability, and significant costs to society. Two problems impede diagnosis and treatment. First, clinicians lack the direct, empirical knowledge in either a normal or abnormal population to determine whether symptoms qualify for diagnosis, are being effectively treated, or have been reduced to healthy levels. Second, the processes underlying BPD and associated problems are largely unknown. Rather than rely on retrospective questionnaires, this project collects empirical accounts of symptom frequency, severity, and co-occurrences; tests several hypotheses; investigates the role of interpersonal perception in stressors and symptoms; and charts trajectories and transactions of symptom frequency, severity, and contingencies.

R. Michael Furr

  • See also Fleeson
  • Binge drinking: Individual differences in the capacity to alter drinking patterns
    Awarded $12,440 for the period 4/1/13 to 3/31/14
    Source: NIH/University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio

Alcohol binge drinking is associated with dangerous levels of intoxication that are costly to both individuals and society. One important mechanism may be “loss of control” after the first drink. Recent evidence suggests that the impulsivity of individuals with reduced serotonin function may increase disproportionately after consuming alcohol. This study will characterize impulsivity among adult binge and nonbinge drinkers during a simulated alcohol binge and/or L-tryptophan depletion; use a 12-week contingency management procedure to determine to what extent individual differences in the capacity to reduce drinking are related to impulsivity; and determine to what extent reductions in drinking achieved during contingency management can be maintained across a 3-month follow-up.

  • Impulsivity and Information Processing in Adolescent Cannabis Abuse
    Awarded $15,000 for the period 10/1/07 to 8/31/08
    Source: NIH

Adolescents experience maturational changes related to reward-seeking, motivation, and self-regulation across multiple domains of behavioral, executive, and physiological functioning. Cannabis has a potentially negative effect on any or all of these developmental processes. Although the effects of its use, such as distorted perception, memory, and problem solving, have been shown in animals and adults, the antecedents and consequences of cannabis use on the developing cognitive, neurophysiological, and behavioral processes during adolescence are poorly understood. This project uses a battery of new technologies to characterize the effects of cannabis use on cognitive processes developing during adolescence—specifically, attention, executive functioning, and impulsive behaviors—compared to controls.

  • Impulsivity Models: Behavioral Mechanisms
    Awarded $15,081 for the period 4/1/06 to 3/31/07
    Source: NIH

This project will advance our understanding of impulsivity and its role in the development of severe conduct problems. Two types of objective behavioral measures?rapid-decision vs. reward-directed?will be compared among three groups of adolescents with conduct disorder (CD): those without histories of physical fighting; those with histories of planning fights; and those who fight impulsively. Experiment 1 uses several task types concurrently to determine which measures are most sensitive to group differences. In Experiment 2, performance feedback (reward, penalty, and combined reward/penalty) is used to determine which task parameters improve group discrimination and how each group’s performance may be differentially modulated by feedback. In both experiments, behavioral impulsivity performance will be related to parent, teacher, and self-report ratings for further validation. These studies will help to determine the basic mechanisms of impulsivity and to develop the objective, replicable measures needed to answer both basic and applied research questions. The long-term goal is to determine how impulsivity relates to biological mechanisms, treatment prediction, and outcome. Research focused on understanding the unique causal pathways that lead children to develop patterns of severely antisocial and aggressive behavior will advance treatment.

  • Behavioral Models of Impulsivity: Alcohol and 5-HT Effects
    Awarded $17,699 for the period 4/1/07 to 3/31/08
    Source: NIH

These studies aim to determine: (1) the dose-dependent effects of alcohol and L-tryptophan manipulation on rapid-decision and reward-directed models of impulsivity; (2) how a biological state change produced by L-tryptophan manipulation can moderate vulnerability to the behavioral effects of alcohol; (3) how different components of impulsivity are differentially affected by alcohol and L-tryptophan manipulations; and (4) how baseline responses to these behavioral models relate to one another and to self-reported measures of impulsivity. Together, they may provide evidence that serotonin moderates alcohol-induced behavioral impulsivity and inform further exploration of what factors contribute to the individual differences observed in impulsive behavior after alcohol consumption. Healthy men and women will be evaluated at intervals before and after the interventions, and each will experience all the interventions in a repeated-measures design. Experiment 1 examines dose effects of alcohol on behavioral impulsivity. Experiment 2 examines dose effects of L-tryptophan loading and depletion, which alter central nervous system serotonin levels. Experiment 3 examines the interactive effects of alcohol and L-tryptophan.

Eranda Jayawickreme

  • Does adversity make us wiser? Beginning to address a foundational question through deep integration
    Awarded $206,463 for the period 12/4/15 to 8/31/17
    Source: Templeton Foundation

Sir John Templeton observed that “the most stressful event can be a gift … a powerful learning experience that can help us to grow in wisdom and understanding of life’s true and deeper meaning” (2012, 41-42). This project investigates different types of adversity that may cultivate wisdom. Based on the hypothesis that wise people make and act on good judgments about what matters, it will test the belief that we can learn and grow from our misfortunes. It proceeds in three steps: (1) a book summarizing our work on posttraumatic growth and arguing for the specific virtues that characterize wisdom in the aftermath of adversity; (2) an interdisciplinary summer seminar convening psychologists, philosophers, religious scholars, and theologians to discuss the relationship between adversity and wisdom; and (3) a series of experiments assessing whether and how different types of adversity promote wisdom. The goal is to clarify the traits, skills, and virtues that lead from specific types of adversity to wisdom.

  • Promoting intellectual humility among middle-school students: Developing educational film and preliminary intervention strategy
    Awarded $682,523 for the period 11/1/15 to 10/31/18
    Source: Templeton Foundation

This project addresses four questions: 1) How are the intellectual virtues of curiosity, open-mindedness, and intellectual humility related? 2) Can we create an educational tool that introduces intellectual humility into school settings and/or elucidates it in school settings where it has been introduced? 3) Can specific programming clarify middle-school students’ understanding of intellectual humility? 4) What triggers intellectual humility in daily adult life, and does adversity promote it? This project will develop an educational film to promote middle-school student discussions and understanding of intellectual humility and assess whether it elicits cognitive and emotional changes related to intellectual humility.

  • What are the Real Benefits of Hardship?: Examining Possibilities for Behavior Growth Following Adversity.
    Awarded $25,805 for the period 8/6/13 to 9/30/14
    Source: Templeton Foundation

Although the theme of strength from adversity is both attractive and central to many works of philosophy, theology, and literature, empirical evidence remains mixed. Beliefs about growth may not be related to meaningful behavior changes and may even lead to negative outcomes. This interdisciplinary project will examine whether and under what conditions adversity leads to psychological and behavioral growth. It will develop a series of studies using innovative prospective designs to identify determinants of behavioral growth and focus on community populations who have experienced severe adversity. The research will provide empirically supported tools to enable people to gain in meaningful ways from their life challenges.

Janine Margaret Jennings

  • with Jack Rejeski, Health and Exercise Science
    Life DMAQC (Data Management, Analysis, and Quality Control)
    Awarded $9,743 for the period 12/1/13 to 11/30/14
    Source: NIH

As life expectancy rises, older Americans’ independence has emerged as a major public health priority. Older people who lose mobility are less likely to remain in the county; have higher rates of morbidity, mortality, and hospitalization; and experience poorer quality of life. Several studies have shown that regular physical activity improves physical performance, but definitive evidence that mobility disability can be prevented is lacking. This Phase 3, single-masked, multicenter, randomized controlled trial compares a moderate-intensity physical activity program to a health education program in sedentary older persons at risk for disability. The primary aim is to assess the long-term effects of the interventions on the ability to walk 400m. Secondary aims assess the interventions’ effects on cognitive function; serious fall injuries; persistent mobility disability; major mobility disability or death; disability in daily living activities; and cost-effectiveness. Results will have crucial implications for prevention or delay of major mobility disability and yield valuable information on the efficacy of physical activity for other health outcomes.

  • with Dale Dagenbach
    SHARP-P
    Awarded $81,546 for the period 6/1/08 to 5/31/09
    Source: NIH; WFBH

SHARP aims to test the effects of a physical activity and mental training intervention to prevent various types of cognitive decline observed with aging. In SHARP-P, a pilot program, investigators from the Medical School and the Reynolda campus departments of Health and Exercise Science and Psychology are collaborating to evaluate several questions related to the trial’s feasibility and to examine the independent and combined effects of physical exercise and cognitive training on executive function.

  • Memory Training to Enhance Performance in Older Adults with Mild Cognitive Impairment
    Awarded $24,940 for the period 4/1/03 to 3/31/04
    Source: WFBH

The project aims to assess the efficacy of a behavioral intervention for memory function in older individuals with Mild Cognitive Impairment (MCI). In collaboration with colleagues, Dr. Jennings has devised a recollection training procedure that resulted in dramatic improvements in memory on the training task and other measures of memory and cognitive function in healthy older adults. To test the technique’s value for MCI, 50 participants diagnosed with the condition will undergo an assessment battery of cognitive and memory function tasks and then be randomly assigned to either recollection training or no-treatment control conditions to determine the training’s benefits. The project will provide a graduate studentstipend for one year.

Lisa Kiang

  • Gratitude, well-being and the decline of materialism: A cross-cultural study of character formation in children and adolescents
    Awarded $14,548 for the period 7/1/15 to 6/30/16
    Source: Templeton Foundation/UNC-Greensboro

Excessive materialism is neither environmentally sustainable nor psychologically healthy. Gratitude is a key aspect of character formation; adolescents and adults who are grateful report high psychological well-being and tend to be more connected to community and less materialistic. This project is the first to examine the development and interrelationship of gratitude and materialism in 7-14-year-olds from four societies that vary in emphasis on autonomy and relatedness. The resulting empirical evidence on the effects of both culture and individual parenting will inform materials to promote gratitude, helping youth to develop healthier views about acquiring material goods.

  • Physiological Reactivity to Discrimination among African, Asian, and Latin American Youth
    Awarded $17,117 for the period 9/20/11 to 9/19/12
    Source: American Psychological Foundation

The psychological and emotional consequences of racial discrimination are well understood, but less is known about how such experiences affect physical responses. This study seeks to (1) connect socio-emotional experiences of discrimination to physiological reactivity; (2) differentiate that reactivity by type and severity of the transgression; (3) compare discrimination experiences among African, Asian, and Latin Americans; and (4) examine how reactivity may be moderated by resilience factors, such as ethnic identity.

E.J. Masicampo
Complementary benefits of first-and third-person perspectives for self-control
Awarded $201,492 for the period 8/1/15 to 7/31/16
Source: John Templeton Foundation/Florida State University Research Foundation, Inc.

The project tests the hypothesis that the perspective from which people view themselves can promote self-control. The epistemic and representational differences between the first- and third-person perspectives have been widely discussed in philosophy, but their practical implications have not. Here, experimental techniques investigate the effect of self-perspectives on self-control.

Wayne Pratt 
AREA: Meso-accumbens Serotoenergic Involvement in Appetitive and Consummatory Behaviors
Awarded: $314,128 for the period 2/1/11 to 1/31/14
Source: NIH

Overweight adults constitute 65% of the US population. Obese individuals are at elevated risk for diabetes, hypertension, heart disease, stroke, and certain kinds of cancer, and obesity-related costs are estimated to account for 5-7% of annual medical expenditures, or over $75 billion a year. The causes of the recent epidemic are complex and include genetic predisposition, increasingly sedentary lifestyles, and the proliferation of highly palatable and calorically dense foods. Such diets, commonly high in fat and sugar, promote intake beyond that needed to maintain normal body weight, a tendency that served us well when famine occurred regularly but now contributes to obesity. The only current centrally active drug approved for weight maintenance (sibutramine) is thought to inhibit feeding by promoting brain serotenergic function. Recent work suggests that serotonin receptors in hypothalamic regions, which modulate food intake based on energy need, and in the hindbrain mediate some of these effects. However, promotion of feeding based on the palatable properties of food is thought to be regulated by other brain regions; specifically, the neural reward circuitry that also mediates the addictive properties of drugs of abuse. Using established behavioral pharmacological approaches, this project will test the hypothesis that serotonin receptors in the rat nucleus accumbens and ventral tegmentum regulate food consumption and food-seeking behaviors. Determining the functions of serotonin receptors in this brain motivational circuitry will provide novel information about serotonin’s modulation of motivational behavior that is essential for developing and refining pharmacological treatments for weight control. This project will also train and mentor promising undergraduate and Master’s students in biomedical research.

James Schirillo
Acquisition of Instruments to Measure Visual Bias of Occluded Auditory Signals in Three-Dimensional Space
Awarded $57,147 for the period 8/1/05 to 7/31/07
Source: NSF

With support from a Major Research Instrumentation award, the Psychology department will acquire stereovision and audio equipment that will be placed in an audiometric sound chamber and configured to produce a 3-dimensional audio-visual environment to measure the multisensory localization of visually occluded auditory signals. Its custom design will make it the only one of its kind in the United States.Multisensory integration is typically studied with2-dimensional stimuli. Designing experiments in a 3-D environment allows occluding objects to be added, creating the ecologically valid condition most encountered in nature. Recent advances in environmental acoustics and stereoscopic viewing technology offer an exciting opportunity to explore how an object’s opacity or transparency influences the extent to which flashes of light bias the perception of where a sound burst originates. The project hypothesizes that an object’s opacity constrains the extent to which a light can bias the sound’s perceived location. Results may change (1) how psychophysicists model auditory occlusion in 3-D space; (2) what neuroscientists consider the type of contextual factors that can influence the receptive field properties of multisensory neurons; and (3) how engineers design such environments as cockpits. The equipment will be used by psychophysicists and neurobiologists at the professional, graduate, and undergraduate level across the Reynolda and Health Sciences campuses.

Eric Stone

  • Aggregative Contingent Estimation System (ACES)
    Awarded $16,769 for the period 5/23/11 to 5/22/13
    Source: Intelligence Advanced Research Projects Activity (IARPA)

A team led by Applied Research Associates is developing a platform that captures, combines, and shares expert opinions to make intelligence forecasts as accurate as possible. Seewww.forecastingace.com.

  • Aggregative Contingent Estimation System (ACES)
    Awarded $52,168 for the period 5/23/11 to 5/22/13
    Source: Intelligence Advanced Research Projects Activity (IARPA)/Applied Research Associates, Inc. (ARA)

The project develops and tests methods for obtaining accurate judgments on forecast problems to support decision-making. The objective is to design and evaluate user interface methods and representations that maximize quick understanding of high-level results and provide a deep understanding of their complex relationships in the results. This includes an IARPA-specified test protocol to collect and report communication metrics.

  • Graphic versus numerical presentation of quantitative environmental risk information about unexploded ordinance
    Awarded $39,099 for the period 9/1/09 to 8/31/11
    Source: NSF

This pilot study will pretest the measures and communication materials used in the main study and lead the data analysis.

  • Strategies for Communicating Low-probability Disease Risk to Health Consumers
    Awarded $9,055 for the period 9/1/08 to 8/31/09
    Source: NIH

Increasing perceptions of colorectal cancer (CRC) risk should motivate screening, yet findings are inconsistent, possibly due to poor communication about disease precursors, probability of occurrence, consequences, and methods to prevent or diminish the threat. Since the likelihood of developing CRC is the most difficult component to convey, this preliminary project will determine whether the standard numerical display of likelihood information decreases motivation to screen. If so, the project will develop and test a clearer and more convincing graphic display.

Christian Waugh
Investigating the neural systems that support the beneficial effects of positive emotion on stress regulation
Awarded $440,814 for the period 5/1/15 to 4/30/18
Source: NIH

When not regulated effectively, stress has profound deleterious effects on mental and physical health outcomes, triggering mood disorders and suppressing the immune system. Experiencing positive emotions in the midst of stress is one of the most promising and robust stress regulators, but the neural systems that support these potentially beneficial effects have not been studied. This project will integrate psychological theories and neural models of positive emotions, stress, and emotional regulation to determine which neural systems support the beneficial effects of positive emotion. It proposes a novel neuropsychological model from which three candidate neural mechanisms that also map onto established psychological constructs emerge. A series of studies examines the engagement of these three systems in novel variations on validated experimental paradigms and established behavioral paradigms adapted for the MRI scanner.