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Transforming the understanding
and treatment of mental illnesses.

Emotional and Developmental Branch Emotion and Development Branch (E & D)

Emotion and Development Branch (E & D)

The Emotion and Development Branch (E & D) houses the Section on Development and Affective Neuroscience (SDAN), led by Dr. Daniel Pine, the Section on Mood Dysregulation and Neuroscience (SMDN), led by Dr. Ellen Leibenluft, the Neuroscience and Novel Therapeutics Unit (NNT), led by Dr. Melissa Brotman, and the Unit on Computational Decision Neuroscience, led by Dr. Silvia Lopez-Guzman.

These four laboratory sub-groups differ in their clinical phenotypes of interest. SDAN focuses on anxiety disorders and behavioral inhibition, a sub-clinical precursor of pediatric anxiety. SDAN conducts research on the boundaries between health, sub-clinical disorders, and relatively mild, highly prevalent mental illness. SMDN focuses on chronic, severe irritability; in taking a dimensional view of irritability the Section seeks to learn the pathophysiology of this important problem. The NNT unit focuses on the development of novel mechanism-based treatments for irritability, anxiety, and related conditions. CDN focuses on the effect of emotional states on decision-making across a variety of disorders from depression to substance use in adolescents and adults.

While the four groups focus on different conditions and constructs, the research conducted by them is closely related. This reflects the strong relationship between anxiety, depression, and other mood disorders. For example, many children with anxiety disorders also have mood disorders or will develop depression or mood disorders over time. There also are many similarities in the causes and treatments of mood and anxiety disorders.

The four groups share a view of their research mission and approach to clinical care that focuses on understanding the brain correlates of emotional problems throughout development in order to find better treatments for these conditions. Based on their similarities, the four groups combine their resources 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 (Branch Chief) works closely with Drs. Leibenluft, Lopez-Guzman, and Brotman to create consensus on 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 via laboratory and smartphone-based tasks and applications 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 also places an increasingly strong emphasis on understanding mechanisms underlying both pharmacological and psychological interventions.

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 mental illness with a focus on development. A central objective in the Branch is to fill this research gap.

Within the Branch, we focus predominately on disorders linked to disturbances in circuits that include the striatum, temporal lobes, and prefrontal cortex. Importantly, examining similar neural circuits allows the four groups to compare neural correlates across disorders using identical paradigms. By working together, individual studies conducted by the four groups can generate new insights on commonalities and differences across a range of emotional disorders. The Branch devotes substantial effort to mentoring young investigators interested in the pathophysiology of mental disorders in pediatric and young adult populations.