Research Projects

Currently Recruiting

Please contact the Emotion Regulation Lab at (212) 650-3878 or emotionregulationlab@gmail.com for inquiries on participation in our research studies.



Attention and Resilience Training (ART)

Principal Investigators: Tracy Dennis, PhD

Clinicaltrials.gov identifier: NCT02200003

Funding: The National Institute of Mental Health and the National Institute of General Medical Sciences

Anxiety and stress-related disorders are the most common and well-studied psychiatric disorders in childhood and adulthood. Yet, only 50% of clinically anxious individuals obtain effective, evidence-based treatments. Barriers to treatment include cost, accessibility, and time burden. Thus, the development of highly accessible, low-cost treatment approaches to complement current treatments is a crucial research goal. Attention bias modification training (ABMT) is a computerized intervention that directly modifies the anxiety-related threat bias - exaggerated, attention to threat that plays a causal role in the development and maintenance of anxiety. The ART study is a four year clinical trial of ABMT for anxiety in adults. It represents a crucial step in understanding mechanisms underlying plasticity of the threat bias and remediation of anxiety. This clinical trial of ABMT for anxiety is among the first that incorporates a biobehavioral approach to identify biological and behavioral mechanisms underlying treatment response.

Special Investigation of Curcumin Effects (SPICE)

Principal Investigators: Tracy Dennis, PhD

Funding: Hunter College Center for Translational and Basic Research

Curcumin, a biologically active compound found in the Indian spice turmeric, is being investigated as a potent anti-inflammatory, anti-depressant, and neuroprotective agent in research studies around the world. This pilot study will be the first to examine whether curcumin may be effective in reducing the symptoms of worry, stress, and anxiety that are felt by many people in their day-to-day lives, even if they have not been diagnosed with an anxiety disorder. In particular, we are interested in determining whether curcumin may reduce exaggerated attention to and learning about fear-related information in the environment that is common to many individuals who suffer from anxiety. Anxiety disorders lack effective treatments for as many as 50% of sufferers: should curcumin demonstrate efficacy in reducing exaggerated responses to fear-related stimuli in anxious individuals, it may yield high-impact, translational findings that could serve as a crucial first step in the future clinical use of dietary curcumin in the treatment of anxiety disorders.

Biobehavioral Studies of Mobile Mental Health Games

Principal Investigators: Tracy A. Dennis, PhD, Shari Gelber, MD, and Kristin Buss, PhD

Funding: Clinical and Translational Science Center (CTSC) of the Weill Cornell Medical College Frontiers of Innovation Initiative of the Harvard Center for the Developing Child

Anxiety disorders are the most commonly diagnosed of the mental health disorders. Yet many people do not seek treatment and many who do remain symptomatic. For some individuals, the cost, burden, and stigma associated with many evidence-based treatments are significant barriers to accessing these interventions. Thus, the development of effective and low-burden interventions for anxiety is among the most pressing public health needs today. Moreover, research on alternative treatment approaches has the potential to advance our understanding of the causes and course of anxiety and to inform new approaches to early detection.

The gamification of mental health interventions represents use of “disruptive” technology to overcome barriers to treatment (high cost, stigma, time commitment). Research on such alternative delivery strategies for anxiety aims to create affordable and engaging mobile games that target core cognitive disruptions, such as cognitive biases, or dysfunctional habits of attending to and interpreting the world.

We recently published a study exploring effects of a gamified attention bias modification app on anxiety and stress reactivity in adults (http://www.psychologicalscience.org/index.php/news/were-only-human/mental-health-on-the-go.html). We are now conducting a series of follow-up studies that use scalp-recorded event-related potentials (ERPs) to track how the app alters neurocognitive responses to threat and examine whether these changes predict reductions in anxiety and stress.

The attention bias modification app is being investigated in several groups:

1. Anxious college students (Dennis)

2. Pregnant women (Dennis & Gelber)

3. Youth facing early adversity (Dennis & Buss)

Parental Scaffolding of Child Reappraisal

Principal Investigators: Tracy Dennis, PhD

Reappraisal is a cognitive emotion regulation strategy that involves reinterpretation of the meaning of a stimuli so that it is viewed in a more positive light. Little is understood about the development of reappraisal in children due to both limitations in children's ability to report their subjective experiences, as well as the lack of real life emotional contexts in laboratory assessments. In particular, during child emotion regulation measurement, laboratory contexts do not include parent-child social scaffolding, a technique through which parents increase their child's emotional and cognitive functioning at a level exceeding what they could achieve alone. This study uses ERPs recorded during a computerized directed reappraisal task to measure the underlying neurological processes that occur during child reappraisal. In this study, some five-to-seven year old children have their parent present to help them with reinterpretations of emotional stimuli as they normally would in every day interactions, while others do not. This allows us to compare the reappraisal capacities of children in an ecologically valid parent-child context versus a more traditional laboratory procedure. Furthermore, we seek to establish links between ERPs and behavior by comparing children's reappraisal capacities as measured via ERPs to the spontaneously generated regulatory behaviors during challenging emotional tasks. Evaluation of the effectiveness of parent scaffolding abilities will also allow us to determine what qualities of parent-child interactions are associated with better emotion regulation abilities in children.

Child Attention Bias Modification (CABM)

Principal Investigators: Tracy Dennis, PhD

Current research suggests that computerized attentional bias modification training (ABMT) is a promising intervention for anxiety and stress-related problems in adults. However, few studies have examined whether the attentional bias to threat can be modified in children using state of the art techniques. This study includes children showing signs of anxiety and worry, and examines whether ABMT can alter neural responses associated with anxiety, dysfunctional patterns of attention ot threat, and stress reactivity.

Studies Completed



Acute Attention Bias Modification Training for Reducing Anxiety and Stress

Principal Investigators: Tracy Dennis, PhD

By training attention away from threat through brief, cost-effective, and simple computer-based attention bias modification training (ABMT) techniques, stress reactivity and even clinical levels of anxiety can be reduced. ABMT may thus serve as a powerful adjunct to traditional anxiety treatments because it targets a mechanism in anxiety that other treatments do not specifically target – the threat bias – and is relatively brief and affordable. A critical gap in this research is a lack of understanding of how to best measure the threat bias, and the neurocognitive processes underlying the efficacy of ABMT. Moreover, very little research has examined ABMT in children. Using event-related potentials (ERPs), we are conducting a series of projects in which we examine the effects of ABMT in anxious children and adults, and track how ABMT changes attention to threat at the multiple levels, both behavioral and biological. This project is being conducted in collaboration with the Tel-Aviv University/National Institute of Mental Health Attention Bias Modification Treatment international initiative.

Neurocognitive Processes in Anxiety

Principal Investigators: Tracy Dennis, PhD

This relationship between our thoughts and feelings can promote well-being, happiness, and productivity, but thoughts and feelings can also be out of balance, and lead to psychological suffering. Anxiety disorders are fundamentally rooted in a disruption in the relationship between thoughts and feelings, yet our understanding of the specific nature of these disruptions and their biological signatures are far from complete. Such knowledge will be crucial in the development of more effective early detection, prevention, and intervention efforts. In this project, we focus on one specific anxiety disorder, Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD), which is characterized by constant worry and pervasive anxiety surrounding health, work, school, relationships, and many other facets of everyday life. Counterintuitively, this worry may actually serve as a coping strategy – a way of redirecting attention away from anxious feelings experienced in the moment. This style of cognitive avoidance of emotion may be a fundamental casual factor in GAD. The goal of this project is to identify neurocognitive signatures for this cognitive avoidance and its impact on emotional functioning. In particular, we are using scalp-recorded event-related potentials (ERPs) to track specific disruptions in emotional processing and error monitoring in GAD. In addition, we are looking for the presence of a specific genetic polymorphism of the BDNF allele associated with regulation of stress and anxiety-related behavior to better understand the impact of genetic risk on these processes.

Mindfulness Meditation for At-Risk Youths

Principal Investigators: Tracy Dennis, PhD, Dave Vago, PhD

A growing body of literature has indicated that mindfulness- based interventions promote positive outcomes in a variety of populations. However, little research has been done to identify whether mindfulness meditation is beneficial for at-risk adolescents and whether this type of program can be implemented into their course curriculum. We explore whether youth trained in mindfulness, compared to placebo and control conditions, would show greater resilience (reduced negative outcomes) and more positive cognitive, social, and emotional outcomes. This work also looks at the pedagogical effects of including a group of students as research assistants. This study is a collaborative effort with Susan Finley, filmmaker, to document the research project.

Social Media and Adolescent Development

Principal Investigators: Tracy Dennis, PhD

Among adolescents, social media are fast becoming the dominant alternative to socializing face-to-face or on the phone. Sixty-eight percent of teens aged 12-17 in the US (over 10.5 million teens) use social networking sites like Facebook.com, and 66% of teens text, sending between 3,000 - 4,000 texts per month, amounting to more than 6 texts per waking hour. Thus, these types of computer-mediated social interactions are for the majority of teens an integral part of the social-emotional landscape of adolescence and the role of social media is expected to only grow over the coming years. The popularity of social media provides a unique opportunity to explore core questions about the impact of social exchanges on emotional development and to address critical public health and social policy issues of whether social media are changing youths' social-emotional abilities on neural and behavioral levels. Does the use of social media influence adolescents' emotional development? Social media emphasize verbal expressions of emotion, and offer a rich network of social connections. They lack, however, real-time face-to-face interactions. Current theories of emotional development argue that adolescence is a critical period during which emotional competencies, such as empathy and emotion regulation, are developed and solidified in the context of social interactions. Moreover, core emotional sensitivities, such as the ability to quickly interpret emotional cues from the face and voice during real-time social exchanges, are thought to be refined during this period and in turn to bolster the development of higher order emotional competencies like empathy. No research to date, however, has systematically examined the impact of social media on emotional development during adolescence. To this end, our primary aim is to describe social media use over a 3-year period in a group of 200 adolescents (starting at age 13) and to frame the hypothesis that frequent social media use may have both a positive and negative impact on behavioral, event-related brain potential (ERP), and questionnaire measures of emotional competence and emotional sensitivity.

Changing Attention to Emotion: A Biobehavioral Study of Attentional Bias Modification Using Event-Related Potentials

Principal Investigators: Tracy Dennis, PhD

This study is one of the first to examine neural and behavioral measures of threat bias in the context of ABM. By taking advantage of the temporal and affective sensitivity of EEG, this study has the potential to clarify both the time course of the threat bias in anxiety and the processes altered by ABM. Findings have the potential to contribute to future studies that will assess whether ABM can be used as an alternative treatment for certain anxiety disorders.

Emotion Regulation Across the Lifespan

Principal Investigators: Tracy Dennis, PhD

Although a significant body of research has examined neurobehavioral processes underlying adult emotion regulation, very little is known about the development of emotion regulation from a multi-method, multi-trait perspective. A variety of projects in our laboratory examine how the ability to use emotion regulation strategies changes over the lifespan from kindergarten to older adulthood (65+), and tests whether event-related brain potentials (ERPs) can be used to capture these changes. Children: Our primary goal is to identify behavioral and neurophysiological markers for emotion regulation from kindergarten age children through adolescence. This study focuses on the use of ERPs to track changes in how children use different emotion regulation strategies, such as reappraisal. Though a great deal of literature has examined emotion regulation in children from a behavioral perspective, much less is known about the cognitive and neural correlates of emotion regulation during childhood. College-Aged Adults: Emotion regulation strategies, like reappraisal and suppression, can influence memory for emotional material. The goal of this study is to understand the interactions between multiple physiological measures (ERPs and cortisol) and emotional memory in order to identify how specific emotion regulation strategies either help or hinder memory. Older Adults: On the opposite end of the developmental continuum, our aging study involves a variety of emotion regulation and memory tasks. The purpose of this study is to examine whether biases in memory for emotional material differ between younger and older adults, and whether these differences are linked to how younger and older adults use emotion regulation strategies.