Last edit May 2019 by Nur Givon-Benjio

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Preference for Greater Distance in Social Anxiety: Preference or Perceptual Bias? An Examination of Cognitive and Brain Mechanisms

Avoidance of social encounters has been described as a key feature of social anxiety disorder (SA), resulting in maladaptive behavior in daily life. Previous studies have indicated that socially-anxious individuals prefer larger interpersonal distance from strangers than from friends. The question whether individuals with SA only prefer to maintain a larger distance from strangers or whether they perceive this distance in a distorted manner has yet to be examined. To help address this issue, we propose to examine perceptual biases of interpersonal distance in individuals with SA. Therefore,we examine whether higher levels of SA symptoms are correlated with perceiving other people (specifically strangers) as standing closer. We also investigate the causal relations among SA symptoms, interpersonal distance perception bias and interpersonal distance preference. In the future, we will further plan to examine the neuro-cognitive mechanism mediating distance preference and perception. Perceptual bias may lead to anxiety or intensify it, which in turn increases avoidance. It is possible that the abnormal early processes are the root of the social anxiety disorder rather than the symptom.

 

Defining the Relations between Attention Bias and Expectancy Bias in Fear of Spiders: Is Biological Preparedness Modulated by Context?

Spider fearful individuals display biased attention and expectancies toward spiders. Previous examinations of causal relationships between attention and expectancies among low- and high-fearful individuals repeatedly showed that manipulating expectancies does not alter attention bias toward spider targets, and that biological preparedness (i.e. an inherent tendency to fear certain relevant stimuli) might account for this missing influence. To examine the role of biological preparedness, we have conducted an experiment in which cues stated the likelihood that a to-be-detected deviant target. Then, we have presented visual search array with a gun or a mobile phone, which had an equal likelihood of appearing. We found that expectancy cues clearly influenced attention deployment to ontogenetic threat (i.e. guns). In another experiment, phylogenetic threats (i.e. spiders) were presented, only in this case expectancy cues were tilted in favor of non-threatening stimuli (i.e. birds), among a healthy sample. Under these modified expectancies, participants reacted according to the preceding cue and did not exhibit attention bias toward spiders, in contrast to previous studies. Taken together, our findings reveal that phylogenetic threats (i.e. spiders) receive prioritized processing, that is nevertheless modulated by context-dependent expectancies.

In collaboration with Prof. Tatjana Aue, Universität Bern
Institut für Psychologie Allgemeine Psychologie und Neuropsychologie

Is interpretation bias state dependent? Examination of the effect of social ostracism on long-term interpretation of ambiguous information

Interpretation bias plays a role in the etiology and maintenance of anxiety and depression. Yet, it is unclear whether the Interpretation bias varies as a function of specific states. The aim of our study is to examine whether state-like interpretation bias may exist due to a short negative experience.

Participants are exposed to social ostracism or popularity through a CyberBall paradigm, while their interpretation (negative/benign) of social and non-social ambiguous situations is measured using a modified Word Sentence Association task. Interpretation bias is assessed using both direct (percent of negative interpretations) and indirect (Reaction Time (RT) measures.

The association between sleep quality, optimism, executive attention and emotions

The current study focused on the relation between optimism, sleep quality, executive skills and emotions. We measure participants' optimism levels and sleep quality via questionnaires (Positive Affect Negative Affect Schedule; Mini Sleep Questionnaire) and used a modified flanker task to compare the response time to a target stimulus location between participants with high and low levels of optimism. We found that lower levels of optimism were associated with poorer sleep quality. In addition, when asked to ignore emotional distractors, participants who are more optimistic exhibited lower executive attention functions in the presence of positive distractors and higher executive attention functions in the presence of negative and neutral distractors, possibly because of their attraction to positive emotional stimuli.

What can the brain teach us about effective cognitive training: Using machine learning and fMRI in search of effective personalized training to improve wellbeing

The current study seeks to develop an innovative method for personalizing cognitive training for improving everyday human experience by enhancing wellbeing and quality of life. By using utilizing machine learning methods (e.g. random forest), we plan to build an individually-tailored training procedure, that will best suit each individual's characteristics and enhance cognitive training's effectiveness. Our project has 3 specific goals: developing an algorithm for personalized cognitive training, validating the algorithm performance in a separate sample of participants, and proof of concept examination of the neural mechanisms that uniquely characterize effective training.  The potential of implementing personalized medicine approaches to enhance the effectiveness of cognitive training and bolster our understanding of underlying neurobiological mechanisms of beneficial training are investigated.

 

In collaboration with Prof. Sigal Zilcha-Mano, and funded by Joy Ventures 

Regulation of Empathy to Pain and Its Effects on Empathic Accuracy​

Empathy is defined as our ability to understand, share and act upon the feelings and thoughts of others. Empathy is largely viewed as a positive prosocial emotion and as such it is not surprising that most scientific attention has been directed at its positive aspects. Nevertheless, we contend that when empathy is inaccurate due to exaggerated empathy levels resulting from the improper use of emotion regulation techniques, it may impair rather than facilitate accurate social perception and interaction.

 

In collaboration with Prof. Simone Shamay-Tsoory, Department of Psychology, University of Haifa

Identifying Neuro-Cognitive Abnormalities among Individuals at High Risk of Developing Hypertension

 

Essential hypertension is the most important risk factor for cerebrovascular diseases, which are a major cause of death in industrialized societies. Individuals at high risk of developing hypertension already show abnormal vascular reactivity to stress. Recent evidence further suggests that altered structure, function and connectivity within neural networks may predispose individuals to develop hypertension later in life. So far, however, no studies have examined possible deficits in cognitive control mechanisms, which may be the basis for such magnified reactions to stress.

 

Our current research aims to fill this gap by addressing the hypothesis that deficient attentional mechanisms and neural abnormalities in prefrontal-limbic pathways are related to magnified blood pressure reactions to aversive stimuli. The use of cutting-edge measurement methods and advanced analysis is expected to provide new data necessary for understanding how the brain controls reactions to aversive information in health and disease.

 

 

In collaboration with Prof. Arno Villringer, Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences, Leipzig, Germany and with Prof. Nazanin Derakshan, Birkbeck University, United Kingdom

Linking cognitive biases in anxiety

Anxious individuals are characterized by different cognitive biases, such as abnormal orienting of attention towards emotional information and expecting to encounter feared stimuli that may result in catastrophic consequences. Our findings suggest a link between these biases. Thus, a more comprehensive model combining these biases may shed light on the underlying pathological cognitive mechanisms in anxiety.

In collaboration with Prof. Tatjana Aue, Universität Bern
Institut für Psychologie Allgemeine Psychologie und Neuropsychologie

Neuro-Cognitive Mechanisms in Emotional Modulation in ADHD

Most studies on ADHD have investigated dysfunctions of what are considered the main deficits in this disorder: executive attention functions and sustained attention. Nevertheless, for quite some time researchers have studied and acknowledged the association between ADHD and emotional deficiency. Evidence strongly indicates that ADHD individuals have insufficient emotion regulation, as they lack the ability to manage and alter their emotional experience and to promote adaptive, goal-oriented behaviors.

 

Our aim is to identify abnormal neuro-cognitive mechanisms that underlie emotional deficits among individuals with ADHD.

 

Neuro-Cognitive Mechanisms Mediating Cognition-Emotion Interactions

The complex interaction between different factors influencing our reaction to various emotional stimuli has been the topic of a great deal of research. Yet this topic is still poorly understood. In a number of projects, we attempt to further our understanding of the interaction between features of the emotional stimulus, individual differences, and situation-specific factors. Among these factors are the influence of perceptual and cognitive load on the processing of distracting emotional information and the differences between relevant and irrelevant features of distracting stimuli among participants with ADHD and controls. Understanding which factors affect our reaction to emotional information is critical for developing neuro-cognitive theoretical models as well as efficient therapeutic interventions.

 

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