Research

In the Affective Neuroscience and Development Laboratory, researchers use psychological, physiological, and neuroscientific measures to better understand the contributions made by brain development to cognitive, motivated, emotional, and social behavior. We are keenly interested in adolescence as a phase of the lifespan in which numerous competencies are being built within these domains. Yet, adolescence is also a period of the lifespan associated with a unique suite of health risks. It's when psychiatric illnesses are most likely to onset, it's a period of life in which social relations take on heightened importance, and it's a phase of the lifespan associated with exploration of new things in both healthy and unhealthy ways. We hope that by better characterizing adolescent brain development and its effects on psychological functioning relative to other ages, we will get a step closer to using that information in a way that can promote adolescent health and well-being. 

Find out more by clicking on the topics below.

Data from the Human Connectome Project.

We are conducting a series of studies that aim to characterize the fundamental ways in which the brain changes from childhood to adulthood. To do so, we acquire data about the function, structure, and connectivity of the brain. We are particularly interested in whether different parts of brain systems are developing at different rates. Being psychologists, we are most interested in the ramifications of these developmental patterns on the ways in which adolescents think, feel, and behave.

We are one of four research sites conducting the Human Connectome Project in Development (HCP-D), a NIH funded study that will be acquiring multimodal brain imaging and behavioral data on N=1500 5-21 year olds. The overall goal of this project is to chart the development of brain connectivity in unprecedented detail. You can read more about the project here

Current Projects:

  • mapping the developing connectivity of the brain via the Human Connectome Project in Development

Adolescence is a developmental period that entails substantial changes in affective and incentive-seeking behavior relative to both childhood and adulthood, including a heightened propensity to engage in risky behaviors and experience persistent negative and labile mood states. We are conducting research to reveal what "ingredients" of emotional behavior are developing during childhood and adolescence, and how these changes relate to daily-life emotional experiences as they shift with age.

Current Projects:

  • how does emotion regulation develop through adolescence?
  • are adolescents especially motivated to explore emotionally charged material?
  • how do emotional development and language development interact?

A series of behavioral and brain imaging studies are focused on understanding how adolescent decision making might differ from adult decision making. Relatedly, we are evaluating how brain development, which continues through adolescence, shapes typical changes in decision making in the second and third decades of life.

This work is supported by a National Science Foundation CAREER Award to Leah Somerville and a Rubicon Postdoctoral Fellowship to Barbara Braams.

Current Projects:

  • under what conditions do peers influence adolescent risk taking?
  • how do consequences for peers shape adolescent decisions?
  • how do adolescents make decisions about how to explore their environments?

During childhood and adolescence, the brain's learning systems undergo robust developmental changes. We are conduct research to evaluate how the developing brain's learning systems might "weight" social, rewarding, and emotional information differently and thus, exhibit biased learning for these types of information. 

This work is supported by the FJ McGuigan Early Career Research Prize for Understanding the Human Mind to Leah Somerville, a Harvard Medical School Catalyst Pilot Grant to Catherine Insel and Leah Somerville, and a Foundations in Human Behavior Initiative Pilot Grant to Katherine Powers, and an APA Elizabeth Munsterberg Koppitz Child Psychology Fellowship to Alexandra Rodman.

Current Projects:

  • how sensitive are adolescents and adults to social cues of inclusion and exclusion?
  • how does the status of social targets affect social learning?
  • how skillfully do adolescents and adults learn about rewards and punishments in the environment?

Adolescence is a phase of the lifespan during which the brain mechanisms that support cognitive control are still developing. We believe one feature of still-developing control systems is that they are particularly susceptible to disruption in situations involving reward and other factors (like social or exciting cues). This line of research is specifying how the brain's motivation and regulation systems interact differently to shape cognitive control through adolescence.

This work is supported by a Harvard Mind/Brain/Behavior Research Grant to Margaret Sheridan and Leah Somerville, and a NARSAD Young Investigator Award to Leah Somerville.

Current Projects:

  • how do cues that had been associated with rewards in the past shape cognitive control?
  • how do high stakes impact cognitive control differently in adolescence and adulthood?
  • how do the striatum and prefrontal cortex interact differently across development?