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Emotion and Development Branch

Emotion and Development Branch (E & D)

The Emotion and Development Branch (E & D) houses two Sections—the Section on Development and Affective Neuroscience (SDAN), led by Dr. Daniel Pine, and the Bipolar Spectrum Disorders Section (BSD), led by Dr. Ellen Leibenluft.

These two Sections differ in their clinical phenotypes of interest. SDAN focuses on anxiety disorders and behavioral inhibition, a sub-clinical precursor of pediatric anxiety. Hence, SDAN conducts research on the boundaries between health, sub-clinical disorders, and relatively mild, highly prevalent mental illness. BSD focuses on two conditions: bipolar disorder and chronic, severe irritability. Bipolar disorder is less common than chronic irritability but it is severely impairing. Chronic irritability is a clinically common symptom of childhood psychopathology; in taking a dimensional view of irritability the Section seeks to learn the pathophysiology of this important problem.

While the two Sections focus on different conditions, the research conducted by them is closely related. This reflects the strong relationship between anxiety and mood disorders. For example, many children with anxiety disorders also have mood disorders or will develop mood disorders over time. There also are many similarities in the causes and treatments of mood and anxiety disorders. As a result, both labs use similar approaches to their research, giving synergy to their efforts.

The Sections share a view of their research mission and approach to clinical care that focuses on understanding the brain correlates of pediatric emotional problems in order to find better treatments for these conditions. Based on their similarities, the two Sections combine their resources in order to promote efficiency, scientific crosstalk, and breadth of mentorship within the Branch. The Branch organization supports complementary approaches, ensuring the use of comparable methods through oversight of staff training and quality-control procedures applied to diverse clinical syndromes. Dr. Pine and Dr. Leibenluft work together as co-Branch Chiefs to create consensus on clearly defined lines of authority and shared core values. These values recognize the importance of cutting-edge research; outstanding clinical care; top-level mentorship; and efficient use of resources.

Research in The Branch targets three areas: i) brain circuit function, ii) information-processing on laboratory tasks adapted from neuroscience, and iii) clinical syndromes. In-depth, state-of-the-art assessment of these phenomena provides a backbone for research that integrates development, neuroscience, and psychopathology.

The Branch views mental illnesses as arising from abnormal development in a core set of neural circuits. This brings a coherent research approach, while addressing the need for work in an important, neglected area of mental health research. Most chronic mental illnesses in adults are the consequence of processes manifest in children and adolescents. Thus, the limited understanding of pathophysiology reflects, at least partly, the scant work on the pathophysiology of pediatric mental illness. A central objective in the Branch is to fill this research gap.

Within the Branch, we focus specifically on mood and anxiety disorders linked to disturbances in the striatum, temporal lobes, and prefrontal cortex. Importantly, examining similar neural circuits allows the Sections to compare neural correlates across disorders using identical paradigms. By working together, individual studies conducted by The Sections can generate new insights on commonalities and differences across a range of pediatric emotional disorders.

The Branch devotes substantial effort to mentoring young investigators interested in the pathophysiology of pediatric mental disorders.