Virginia Sturm

University of California, San Francisco

canlab.ucsf.edu

What does your research focus on?

My research focuses on how neural systems support emotion and how disruption in these systems relates to alterations in emotion and empathy. I use a laboratory-based approach to measure emotional physiology, behavior, and experience in patients with neurodegenerative disease. In addition, I examine the neural correlates of emotional responding by relating laboratory indices of emotion to neuroimaging measures. The primary goal of my work is to expand our understanding of the association between neural dysfunction and emotional symptoms in neurologic and psychiatric disorders.

What drew you to this line of research and why is it exciting to you?

Before graduate school I worked as a research assistant and had the opportunity to work with patients with frontotemporal dementia, a neurodegenerative disease characterized by profound impairment in social behavior. This disease fascinated me because patients lose interest in maintaining their close relationships and behave in ways that break social norms (despite having relative preservation of cognition). Understanding how degeneration of specific neural systems gives rise to emotional and social deficits in frontotemporal dementia continues to be a focus of my work because there are still many unanswered questions about how the brain supports the complexities of everyday human interaction. Affective neuroscience is an exciting area of research because it is inherently interdisciplinary and requires integration of multiple lines of theories and data, a challenge that I enjoy.

Who were/are your mentors or scientific influences?

I have been very lucky to work with a number of talented, creative, and supportive mentors. Robert Levenson was my graduate advisor. He taught me how to think critically about psychological phenomena, how to deconstruct these phenomena into their component parts, and how to design rigorous studies to test my hypotheses. Bruce Miller introduced me to neurodegenerative disease and showed me the power of examining brain-behavior relationships through his incisive clinical judgment and astute understanding of the human condition. William Seeley has inspired me to question the dogma and to integrate detailed neuroanatomical systems into emotional theory. Howard Rosen has been instrumental in my transition to an independent investigator through his endless support and encouragement. Joel Kramer gave me a chance at my first job as a research assistant and continues to support my career development by challenging me to stand by my opinions and to articulate them clearly.

What’s your future research agenda?

In my future studies, I will continue to examine how emotions change in frontotemporal dementia and other forms of dementia such as Alzheimer’s disease. Understanding how biological alterations in the neural systems dedicated to emotion detection and generation relate to affective symptomatology is one of my primary goals. In upcoming years, I also plan to expand my work to examine emotion in psychiatric disorders. I hope that my studies of socioemotional behavior in neurodegenerative disease will help to shed light on the neural mechanisms that give rise to similar symptoms in psychiatric illness.

What publication are you most proud of?

Sturm, V. E., Levenson, R. W., Rosen, H. J., Allison, S. C., & Miller, B. L. (2006). Self-conscious emotion deficits in frontotemporal lobar degeneration. Brain, 129, 2508–2516.

Although social impairment is a hallmark feature of frontotemporal dementia, the reasons for patients’ social decline is not well understood. In this study, we examined self-conscious emotions (i.e., embarrassment) because they are important for regulation of social behavior. We hypothesized that self-conscious emotions may be especially vulnerable in frontotemporal dementia because they are socially complex and depend upon brain regions that are hard-hit in this disease. This study led to my first publication and confirmed my dedication to interdisciplinary investigations.

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