2014 Janet Taylor Spence Award
What is the focus of your award-winning research?
Broadly, my lab focuses on cognitive neuroscience of psychiatric illness. We seek to better understand, at the neural system level, the mechanisms behind behavioral deficits in neuropsychiatric illness. Specifically, the research in our group focuses on understanding these processes in disorders such as schizophrenia, bipolar illness, and addiction. We use a combination of tools to characterize the underlying neural systems involved in cognitive operations such as working memory as well as their interaction with neural systems involved in affective processes, with the objective of understanding how these processes may go awry in the context of severe neuropsychiatric illness. Methodologically, my lab harnesses the combination of task-based, resting-state, pharmacological functional neuroimaging, as well as computational modeling approaches. Combining these approaches provides a way to mechanistically understand neural circuit dysfunction in psychiatric disorders. The overarching objective of the lab is to better characterize the underlying neural circuit dysfunction in complex mental illness, with the aim of developing better neural markers and informing rationally-guided treatments.
How did you develop an interest in this area?
Severe neuropsychiatric illnesses, such as schizophrenia, are brain-based disorders that profoundly affect life function. Throughout my career, I have been deeply fascinated by how such pathology affects neural computations, in turn affecting complex neural systems and ultimately causing profound behavioral impairment in people suffering from these disorders. I found that functional neuroimaging provided a powerful entry point into studying neural systems that may be affected by mental illness in humans, generating an opportunity to identify markers of the disease process that could inform diagnosis and treatment. While powerful, however, neuroimaging in humans cannot see at the levels of neurons, which is likely where the majority of disease process occurs. Therefore, most recently I became captivated by the possibility of combining multiple neuroscientific tools to address this problem and bridge these levels of analyses — namely via the combination of computation, pharmacology, careful behavioral experiments, and functional connectivity approaches. My ongoing objective is to apply these tools to mechanistically understand the causal chain of events in severe mental illness, from cellular mechanisms to large-scale neural network disturbances and ultimately symptoms.
Who are your mentors and/or biggest psychological influences?
Deanna Barch played a pivotal role in my intellectual development, shaping my doctoral research and thinking around complex mental illness as well as [my thinking around] how to apply state-of-the-art neuroimaging, cognitive neuroscience, and computational approaches to the study of mental illness. Throughout my doctoral training, David Van Essen provided a rigorous methodological, neurobiological and neuroanatomical foundation for my thinking about neuropsychiatric disorders. Since I arrived at Yale, John Krystal has been instrumental in providing continued mentorship, support, guidance, and encouragement in applications of pharmacological approaches as a causal experimental tool to study the synaptic and cellular disturbances via human neuroimaging. Lastly, by collaborating with Xiao-Jing Wang’s group in particular, I gained an important foundation in a computational model rooted in neurophysiologic data, incorporating findings from molecular and systems neuroscience, which complemented my experimental work.
What unique factors have contributed to your early success?
First, I have been tremendously fortunate to receive outstanding training and guidance from my mentors, in particular Deanna Barch and David Van Essen during my doctoral training and John Krystal during my subsequent postdoctoral career stage. In addition, I have had the additional fortune and pleasure to be involved with some outstanding collaborators, who have made the research truly exciting and provided vital momentum. In addition, I found that I was trained and then uniquely positioned to integrate a number of techniques with a direct application towards mental illness — namely neuroimaging, pharmacology, and computational neuroscience. In turn, these approaches could generate advances in the field of clinical neuroscience that create a final output that is much greater than the sum of its parts.
What does winning this award mean to you both personally and professionally?
It’s a tremendous privilege and honor to be recognized at this level and to be part of an outstanding group of individuals who have made important contributions to our field.