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Category: News

Research indicates policing videos contribute to trauma symptoms among Black Americans

Glenna Read
Dr. Glenna Read

Research published in the Fall 2023 issue of Cultural Diversity & Ethnic Minority Psychology reveals that viewing violent police videos can lead to trouble sleeping, symptoms of PTSD, and heightened feelings of being on guard, particularly among Black Americans.

The study, conducted by OIBR Grant Development Program participant, Glenna L. Read, Associate Professor in Advertising and Public Relations, and her team aimed to investigate if Black Americans reported higher levels of negative experiences with police and increased exposure to violent police videos compared to white Americans. The survey involved 1240 participants and found that Black Americans reported more trauma symptoms and increased concerns about discrimination and stereotyping compared to their white counterparts exposed to similar videos.

The study highlights the impact of vicarious trauma through media on mental health, challenging the current DSM-5 classification that excludes such experiences from PTSD diagnoses. The research suggests a shift in worldview influenced by the belief that one could be stereotyped as a criminal, even though the events are experienced vicariously through media.

The research emphasizes the need for mental health practitioners to be aware of these effects, especially for their Black clients. This research is part of a larger collaboration investigating the impacts of body-worn cameras on perceptions of police-citizen interactions. They are currently testing an intervention to reduce this bias.

Read more about this research here:

Translational Research Impact: A Quest for Military Family Financial Well-Being

A Quest for Military Family Financial Well-Being

Dr. Catherine Walker O’Neal is an assistant professor in Human Development and Family Science at the University of Georgia and principal investigator on a recent grant project titled “A Proposal to Measure the Effectiveness of Financial Literacy Efforts Across the DoD,” funded by the USAA Educational Foundation (USAAEF) in the amount of $600,000 over an 18-month timeline.

This project journey began when Dr. O’Neal’s research team was approached by the USAAEF and was asked to submit a proposal. This was a testament to her reputation for evaluating financial family life education programs for the Department of the Air Force. After months of rigorous proposal writing and interviews with stakeholders, her team emerged victorious in securing this competitive grant.

Through this project, Dr. O’Neal has two exciting opportunities to make an impact with her translational research. Firstly, it aids the Department of Defense in aligning financial literacy training with scholarly research, incorporating an understanding of contextual factors that are crucial to military families’ financial well-being. Secondly, it addresses the DoD’s need for evidence-based solutions to measure financial well-being, especially concerning financial literacy training. The goal is to positively impact the nearly 3.5 million total force personnel and their families.

The time and labor involved in applied research such as this demands substantial effort. It involves collaborating with policymakers and professionals to understand their needs and employing rigorous research methods. Despite the challenges, O’Neal finds fulfillment in contributing to positive changes in policy or programming for military families.

Challenges aside, the most rewarding aspect of her various translational research projects has been that she has consistently worked with stakeholders who see the merit of developing policies and programs that are research-based. “I appreciate their excitement and receptiveness for how research can inform their work. In particular, the most rewarding experience is to see our work contribute to positive changes in policy or programming for families,” shared Dr. O’Neal.

When asked about her influences in Human Development and Family Science (HDFS), O’Neal credits Dr. David Wright as an influential mentor and friend. His undergraduate course on the development of interpersonal relationships helped develop her own philosophy and passion for social science from a relational lens. This highlights the profound impact educators can have on shaping the future of aspiring researchers.

Dr. O’Neal acknowledges the collaborative nature of her research, highlighting the significant contributions of mentors and colleagues like Dr. K.A.S. Wickrama, Dr. Jay Mancini, and Dr. Mallory Lucier-Greer. Collaborative efforts, she emphasizes, make the research journey more enjoyable.
Her personal research philosophy prioritizes examinations with a context-rich family systems perspective. O’Neal emphasizes understanding the perceptions of multiple family members and how they are affected by changes within and beyond the family system.

The work of Dr. O’Neal’s research team extends beyond the immediate project, contributing to a broader understanding of military family life, resilience, and the implications of financial stress on well-being.
Looking ahead, her team is excited about a new study collecting longitudinal data from couples with school-aged children. This study will provide fresh insights into military family well-being, expanding the scope of existing research that typically focuses on very young children or adolescents and considering numerous facets of well-being, including mental health, physical health, relational health, and financial health.

Dr. O’Neal envisions continued growth in her research, driven by a passion for understanding and improving the well-being of military families. Her future research projects promise to contribute significantly to the ongoing discourse on family life, resilience, and financial well-being within the military community.

Author: Andrea Horsman

Beyond Words: Exploring the Enigmatic Realm of Infant Language and Play Interactions at Home

Exploring the Enigmatic Realm of Infant Language and Play Interactions at Home

In the world of developmental psychology, Dr. Drew Abney, an assistant professor of Psychology at the University of Georgia and principal investigator, secured a significant grant from the National Science Foundation’s Developmental Sciences division, totaling an impressive $694,828. The project, titled “The Temporal Structure of Infants’ Everyday Behaviors,” is set to unfold over the next three years, offering a glimpse into the nuanced world of infant development.

Dr. Abney’s journey into this fascinating project began during his graduate school years, when he started learning more about how the field of complex networks was innovating analytic tools inspired by statistical mechanics to quantify the temporal structure of diverse phenomena, from how earthquakes unfold over space and time to how our email exchanges are structured across multiple timescales. He started thinking about how this statistical structure that is so pervasive in our world might impact and constrain how humans develop and learn. As he started applying these analytic tools to rich datasets of human interactions and language environments, he realized that these tools might help uncover new insights into human development. These methods have laid the foundation for the research he currently spearheads.

At the heart of this research project lies a novel approach to understanding how infants learn language and the vital role it plays in their development. While traditional studies focused on the quantity and quality of language input, Dr. Abney’s approach goes further by examining the temporal structure of language and other behaviors in infants’ social interactions. The key question guiding the research is, “What is the temporal structure of how language unfolds in social interactions of infants and young children?” To answer this, Dr. Abney’s team has compiled over 400 hours of video recordings capturing infants’ interactions with their caregivers in the comfort of their homes.

“We seek to understand and capture how behaviors such as vocalizations and other social behaviors unfold over time and determine whether that temporal structure is important for language development,” explained Dr. Abney. This innovative perspective has the potential to revolutionize our understanding of language development in infants, providing profound insights into the complexities of human behavior.

Collaborations and interactions with fellow researchers have played a pivotal role in shaping Dr. Abney’s research path. Overcoming challenges imposed by the pandemic, his affiliation with OIBR, and completion of the OIBR Grant Development Program provided essential connections. “In 2021, I was awarded a seed grant award from OIBR to start a project with Drs. Cindy Suveg (Psychology) and Geoffrey Brown (HDFS). Since then, we have been able to do some great research that is translating into thesis projects, manuscripts, and developing NIH proposal ideas,” he remarked.

Dr. Abney’s commitment to team science is evident in his philosophy, which emphasizes collaboration and teamwork as indispensable in studying human development. He believes that a social context is inherent in scientific practice, and fostering transparency, kindness, grace, and respect is crucial for success.

As Dr. Abney envisions the future of his research, “I see my research going deeper into understanding how the properties of infant sleep directly impact other facets of human development by collecting and curating large, multimodal datasets of infants’ behaviors outside of the lab environment and in real-world contexts,” he explained.

In conclusion, Dr. Drew Abney’s research project stands as a testament to the ever-evolving landscape of developmental psychology. With innovative approaches and support from organizations like the NSF and OIBR, his work promises to unravel the complexities of infant language development, contributing significantly to our understanding of human behavior. As he continues to advance alongside his committed team of researchers, the future presents promising opportunities for the field of developmental psychology.

For those who would like more information about this groundbreaking research, Dr. Abney’s lab offers a dedicated website, “The Developmental Dynamics Lab“, providing additional information and updates on the project.

Author: Andrea Horsman

A Quest for Healthier Lives: New Study Investigates Smoking Cessation in Couples

In the competitive world of scientific research, the quest for funding is an integral part of driving groundbreaking discoveries forward. We sat down with Dr. Michelle vanDellen, a professor of Psychology at the University of Georgia, to explore her journey, research project, and the essential role of grant funding. Her newly awarded project, titled “Randomized Controlled Trial of Dyadic Financial Incentive Treatment for Dual Smoker Couples: Evaluation of Efficacy, Mechanisms, and Cost Effectiveness,” is supported by a $2,920,773 grant from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) via the National Cancer Institute.

Theory Meets Applied Problem

It all began on Michelle’s first day at the University of Georgia in 2013, where she had the privilege of meeting her mentor, James Mackillop, Professor of Psychiatry and Behavioral Neurosciences at McMaster University and co-investigator on this grant. She recalls her initial aversion to studying smoking but found herself slowly drawn into the fascinating realm of relationships, addiction, and human behavior.
As she delved deeper into the complexities of human behavior within the context of close relationships, Michelle realized that getting both members of a smoking couple to quit was a puzzle that perfectly aligned with her growing expertise in how people pursue goals and make health behavior changes when their partners are involved. This accidental alignment of her theoretical interests with a pressing real-world problem set the stage for her research.

The Crucial Project: Dual-Smoker Couples

Smoking cigarettes remains the leading preventable cause of death in the United States, disproportionately affecting lower socioeconomic groups. Smokers often have romantic partners, and these partners are frequently smokers themselves. When both members of a couple smoke, they face reduced motivation and ability to quit. Professor vanDellen’s project aims to harness the power of relationships, turning them from an obstacle into an advantage.
Her innovative approach seeks to understand the dynamics within dual-smoker couples, with the goal of designing effective interventions to help them quit smoking. By exploring the intricate balance of motivation and mutual influence in these relationships, her research could provide a novel approach to tackle this major public health issue.

The Role of OIBR in the Journey

The Owens Institute for Behavioral Research (OIBR) at UGA played a pivotal role in Michelle’s journey. She emphasizes that her involvement with OIBR was critical from the outset, starting with the grant development program, where she gained insights into the complexities of dual-smoker couples. Through mentorship from individuals like Steven Beach, Regents Professor of Psychology, and James MacKillop, she received the guidance and support necessary to shape her research program. “These mentors have continued alongside me – letting me develop my own voice and research program and showing me how to connect that program to funding opportunities. They have been extraordinary developers of my confidence and skills.”

OIBR also provided two sources of funding for Michelle. The first was through the GDP program, enabling her to take the initial steps in recruiting smoking couples and gaining a deep understanding of the logistics involved in conducting research. When her RO1 grant submission was scored but unfunded, and UGA’s grants-on-the-edge program declined to support her, that’s when OIBR’s seed grant program came to the rescue. This funding allowed her to implement her targeted intervention with 13 couples, which served as pilot data for an R21 grant. With OIBR’s consistent support and connections, Michelle’s journey in securing funding has been both productive and enlightening.

Surprises and Challenges

Looking back, Michelle recalls her surprise by the prevalence of smoking in society. Growing up in an environment where she seldom encountered smokers, she gained a newfound perspective on the significance of substance use and its impact on individuals. This shift in perception encouraged her to delve deeper into her research, addressing the challenges that smokers face in breaking free from addiction.

Yet, with rewards come challenges. Professor vanDellen found the slow-paced nature of behavior change in her research to be a significant challenge. As someone inclined to problem-solve quickly, she had to adapt to the slow-moving process involved in altering addictive behaviors. However, the heartwarming testimonials from participants who managed to quit smoking because of her research have been a deeply rewarding experience. “These unsolicited comments-sometimes well after the end of their participation-remind me that research matters all throughout the process, not just at the publication of results, ” Dr. vanDellen said proudly.

Inspiration of Mentors, Peers, and Students

When asked about those who influenced her decision to work in psychology, Professor vanDellen emphasized the continuous inspiration she gets from her mentors, peers, and students. In her daily interactions, she is constantly exposed to fresh perspectives and questions that motivate her to explore new horizons within the field of psychology. Her passion for understanding people has evolved into a mission to help them, as she recognizes the significant impact her research has on people’s lives.

A Bright Future for Social Psychology

“Social psychologists often wonder if they can find a funding home in NIH and my experiences have told me that—while yes, it’s hard, it’s also possible and extremely important for us to be involved,” Michelle said. Looking ahead, she aims to use her current research project to not only tackle real-world problems but also to train the next generation of social psychologists. She firmly believes that social psychologists can play a vital role in addressing complex issues like addiction, offering innovative perspectives and fresh solutions.

The Bigger Picture

In addition to contributing to the understanding of smoking addiction and relationship dynamics, Michelle’s work promises to expand our knowledge of human motivation within social relationships. Her research is poised to provide new pathways to successful goal achievement, ultimately contributing to the well-being of individuals as they work towards happier, healthier lives.

Author: Andrea Horsman

Emory University Awards NIH CTSA Pilot Grant to Dr. Jessica Knight

Dr. Jessica Knight, Assistant Professor, in Epidemiology and Biostatistics and former OIBR Grant Development Program participant, has been granted a pilot award by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) Clinical and Translational Science Award (CTSA) program. The grant, valued at $57,337, has been awarded for her research project, “Addressing stress-related pathways of disparities in cardiovascular health for young Georgia families using a wearable biometric device (CTSA Pilot).”

This innovative project seeks to explore new ways of understanding and addressing disparities in cardiovascular health, particularly in young Georgia families. They aim to achieve this through the utilization of cutting-edge technology and novel research methods. The project’s primary focus is on measuring and evaluating heart rate variability (HRV) responses to stress, an essential factor in cardiovascular health.

The research team plans to combine several key elements in their approach, including ecologic momentary assessment, wearable biometric devices, and advanced machine learning analytics. By combining these elements, they aim to gain a comprehensive understanding of how stress affects HRV, particularly in young populations.

The significance of this research extends beyond the immediate findings. Dr. Knight hopes that the insights gained from this project will serve as a foundation for future NIH and American Heart Association (AHA) applications. The ultimate goal is to incorporate their model into prevention studies that aim to reduce stress-related cardiovascular diseases in young individuals.

In addition, the project’s long-term vision extends to using the developed model in other youth populations. This includes those with obesity, sleep disorders, diabetes, and mental health disorders, broadening the potential impact of the research beyond its initial scope.

Collaborators from the University of Georgia (UGA), including Kyle Johnsen from the College of Engineering, Michael Schmidt from the Department of Kinesiology, and Allan Tate from Epidemiology & Biostatistics, will play vital roles in the project’s success.

The project began on August 1, 2023, and will conclude on July 31, 2024. Dr. Knight’s work, along with her research team, is expected to shed new light on the relationship between stress and cardiovascular health, offering potential solutions for at-risk youth in Georgia and beyond.

Can environmental factors affect neurocognitive development, risk for drug use in rural Georgia?

Environmental portrait of Assaf Oshri in front of an MRI scanner

The University of Georgia was recently awarded $3.2 million from the National Institutes of Health to study resilience in rural children using neuroimaging technologies, to help find the answers.

The BRANCH study, which stands for Building Resiliency and Nurturing Children’s Health, will investigate the development of resilience among low-income children living in rural Georgia areas over five years, starting at age 7.

The overarching goal is to determine how children’s communities affect their neurocognitive development and risk for drug use as adolescents.

“If you really want to prevent drug abuse, you need to start early,” said Assaf Oshri, OIBR distinguished scholar, principal investigator of the study and an associate professor in UGA’s College of Family and Consumer Sciences and the director of the Youth Development Institute at UGA. “Toxic environments and conditions during childhood can promote risky behavior over time. Things like stress related to poverty, unsafe communities or feeling lonely can manifest in physical stress that can affect brain development.

“And that developmental damage can affect where these kids go and what they do as adults.”

Oshri’s previous research has shown that low to moderate stress can be good for you, as it forces your body to optimize brain cognition and function. But there is a limit to how much stress is a good thing.

Once stress levels go above moderate levels, which is common in households struggling to pay bills or keep a roof over their family, that stress becomes toxic.

Constant high levels of stress can actually change the structure of the brain. It can lead to increases in white matter at the expense of gray matter, which is involved in muscle control, decision-making, self-control, emotional regulation and more. Chronic stress can also make people more susceptible to a variety of illnesses ranging from nausea and migraine headaches to high blood pressure and heart disease.

Children are particularly vulnerable to the negative effects of stress because their brains are still developing.

“If a child doesn’t have routine at home and they don’t have the security and the safety of the trust in their environment, how do you expect them to do well in school, behave and be attentive?” Oshri said. “Connecting their environment and trying to understand the psychobiological consequences of it—as we will do in the BRANCH study—can help us design preventive intervention to intervene and reduce risk among children with these environments.”

Oshri hopes the BRANCH study will connect the dots between childhood conditions and brain development not only by interviewing and getting to know the families in the study but also by using MRI scanning technology to assess how stress can affect cognition and neural functioning.

Co-investigators on the project include OIBR distinguished scholar, Lawrence Sweet from the Franklin College of Arts and Sciences Department of Psychology, and from the College of Family and Consumer Sciences’ OIBR distinguished scholar, Steven Kogan, OIBR Grant Development Program member, Kalsea Koss, Diane Bales and Margaret Caughy, OIBR distinguished scholar.

The study is funded by a grant from the National Institute on Drug Abuse.


Original article: here
Written by: Leigh Beeson


UGA Psychology researchers are revolutionizing the way we diagnose and treat Schizophrenia patients


Asking better questions: Psychology researchers changing the way we diagnose, treat schizophrenia

OIBR distinguished scholar, Brett Clementz doesn’t love the term “schizophrenia.”

Sure, a quick glance down his extensive publication history might yield several uses of the word, but the University of Georgia Distinguished Research Professor finds it obsolete and imprecise.

It doesn’t capture the nature of the illness, he said, which is much more complex than society’s common definition.

The popular understanding goes something like this: An individual, usually a young adult, begins having hallucinations—“hearing voices” is a common description. Believing these misperceptions to be genuine, they lose their grip on reality and withdraw from family and friends. Taken to their conclusion, the symptoms may result in unpredictable and dangerous behavior.

That’s the popular belief. But it’s not entirely accurate.

In reality, there are far more factors that go into determining an individual’s unique neurological disorder. Different behavioral symptoms call for varying responses. Social support systems, which can impact escalation of the condition, are diverse. On top of it all, everyone has their own genetic and neurological makeup, meaning not all diagnoses—nor treatments—are equal.

Therein lies the problem with traditional approaches to schizophrenia. Diagnoses can lack specificity, making it difficult to tailor effective treatments. Additionally, while 10-15% of the adult population has experiences associated with schizophrenia, only a small portion develops more pronounced, diagnosable symptoms.

So, what makes one high-risk individual capable of living a perfectly unencumbered existence, while others are left struggling? That’s what a pair of research groups at UGA are trying to understand.

From investigating early symptom onset to distinguishing people’s various unique neurological conditions, the researchers are hoping that a better understanding of schizophrenia and similar disorders can lead to more precise diagnoses, better treatment and an overall clearer perception of the disorder.

A new lens for psychosis treatment

Schizophrenia is one of the main psychotic mental disorders outlined in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), the standard for diagnosis in clinical psychology. Psychotic bipolar disorder and schizoaffective disorder, also commonly diagnosed, share similar symptoms.

In the text, schizophrenia is marked by delusions or hallucinations, a departure from early definitions that centered on affect (or emotion), perception of self and volition. Bipolar disorder, meanwhile, focuses more on the mood, characterized by episodes of depression and mania. And schizoaffective disorder, like the center of a Venn diagram, displays a bit of both. Clinicians must distinguish between the three based on their own observational analysis and patients’ limited self-reports.

Beginning to see the problem?

While the DSM is the standard, its definitions of psychotic subtypes and the methods with which they are diagnosed is enough to draw skepticism from many experts.

In 2010, Clementz began working with the Bipolar, Schizophrenia Network for Intermediate Phenotypes (B-SNIP), a consortium backed by more than $20 million in funding from the National Institutes of Health to fill in the gaps. Originally, they examined brain activity and structure to find biomarkers that more clearly defined the psychotic disorders outlined in the DSM.

Some small-scale studies identified occasional shared physiology between individuals diagnosed with schizophrenia and their clinically normal first-degree relatives, but results from other groups greatly differed.

After finding no pattern, they took a different approach.

“We had been playing around with other ways of looking at the data,” said Clementz, who co-directs the Clinical and Cognitive Neuroscience Lab with OIBR Associate Director and Professor Jennifer McDowell. “There are statistical approaches called ‘numerical taxonomy.’ Instead of assuming you know the groups—like schizophrenia, schizoaffective disorder and psychotic bipolar disorder—you throw that out the window and look for statistical patterns that might indicate new groups.”

Numerical taxonomy uses statistical values derived from tests like electroencephalography (EEG), magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), ocular motor measures and more. Researchers will perform tests that measure a subject’s cognitive control.

“There are two ways your brain works,” Clementz said. “The first is that you have a background level of wow and flutter, which everyone has. Your brain is always doing something. Then, if we present you with a stimulus, your brain will respond to that in some way.”

Measurements of these responses form the foundation of the numerical taxonomy. Clementz, McDowell and their teams reviewed data and compared it to data gathered for clinically normal first-degree relatives.

Finally, a pattern emerged.

“We saw the same patterns in the relatives that we did in the patients,” Clementz said.

It indicated a physiological liability inherited from a parent and offered a more precise option to categorize everyone’s unique psychotic experience.

They’re called biotypes. Like the DSM, they are divided into three classifications. Instead of being based on blanket behavioral thresholds, however, they are tailored to the individual. The main clinical characteristics differentiating the biotypes are thought disturbances, lack of spontaneous speech and low involvement in social and occupational activities.

Biotype-1 cases have low neural response to stimuli and poor cognition. Biotype-2 display poor cognition but also overactive neural responses and poor sensory motor inhibition. Biotype-3 was nearly normal on all biomarkers. All three included individuals from each of the DSM’s three psychotic diagnoses.

“In Biotype-1, we see low levels of background wow and flutter, and their ability to respond to a stimulus in the environment is low,” Clementz said. “So, that signal-to-noise ratio, which you need to function in society, is very bad. In Biotype-2, though, we see an equally bad signal-to-noise ratio, but it’s there for an entirely different reason. Their background wow and flutter is so high, they still have a hard time differentiating that stimulus from the background.

“These people are a mix of schizophrenia, schizoaffective disorder and bipolar cases. In the typical approach of the DSM, both subgroups are treated the same, and that makes no sense.”

Researchers are currently studying how this new approach to psychosis can impact treatment. One study will see how repurposing an antipsychotic drug called Clozapine can affect treatment outcomes for one of the biotypes.

“Based on the literature, we think only one particular biotype should benefit from that,” Clementz said. “But you couldn’t tell that from the DSM diagnoses because they were spread across all three of our biotypes. The biotypes are transdiagnostic.”

Clementz cautioned against considering this an answer to a long-held diagnostic problem. They’ll explore how treatments affect each and continue to tease out data within the biotypes, which may result in additional classifications.

“We haven’t necessarily made any conclusions yet,” said McDowell, professor in the Franklin College of Arts & Sciences’ Department of Psychology and associate director of the Owens Institute for Behavioral Research. “But science isn’t just about providing answers, it’s also about asking better questions.”

Another group on campus is asking new questions about a different stage of the schizophrenia experience.

Identifying risk before it takes root

In the Clinical Affective Neuroscience (CAN) Laboratory, researchers are taking a novel approach to early identification and prevention of schizophrenia, as opposed to treating those who have already received diagnosis.

OIBR distinguished scholar, Greg Strauss, who leads the lab, was an undergraduate student at UGA when he had his first encounter with this research focus.

“I was captivated by the notion of preventing psychosis,” said Strauss, a professor in the Department of Psychology. “I went off to grad school and postdoctoral research studying people who were in the chronic phase. At that point, many don’t recover.”

To make a difference, he considered, may require studying the early-stage “prodromal” period of the disorder—before attenuated hallucinations or delusions ever emerge.

About 10-15% of the world’s population has sub-threshold psychotic experiences. Sometimes those entail hallucinations or delusions that don’t cause distress or interfere with functioning. Other times, though, they do interfere with functioning. Called “attenuated psychosis syndrome,” it’s a relatively smaller portion of the population.

“So, a large portion of society has some unusual thoughts or perceptions, but there’s something that allows them to be resilient and not develop the disorder,” Strauss said. “Some also have problems with motivation, initiating social activity, feeling or expressing emotion, and we think the constellation of all those things puts people at greater risk.”

The current standard is to assess symptoms and give people a label of “clinical high risk.” Patients will sit for a standard interview about their symptoms.

“We try to phrase questions in a way that is open or not labeling to increase their willingness to share,” said Lauren Luther, a research scientist in the CAN Lab. “But it is largely reliant on self-report.”

That’s a problem. Individuals are biased when it comes to personal experience. There is also significant stigma surrounding mental disorders, and patients may not admit that anything is wrong, much less accept help. Researchers seek collateral information—from a clinician or family member, for example—but sometimes it’s not possible to gain a clear understanding.

Another problem, specificity, looms arguably larger.

“We say these 10-15% are at high risk, but only 20% in that group go on to develop psychosis,” Strauss said. “So, our measures have poor specificity in predicting who is going to develop it or not.”

The CAN Lab, which is conducting several studies funded by the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), is offering several new approaches to address these shortcomings.

One is a 50-site worldwide study that is the largest of its kind conducted by the NIMH. Backed by about $100 million in funding, it is part of the Accelerating Medical Partnership in Schizophrenia’s Psychosis Risk Outcomes Network (ProNET) initiative. UGA and 25 other U.S. institutions are studying a variety of biomarkers—brain scans, blood tests, genetic data and more—to better predict outcomes of high-risk individuals.

Another is called “digital phenotyping” and takes advantage of modern technologies to gain a more consistent and clearer picture of the individual. Cell phones and smart bands follow their owners around all day, providing opportunities for researchers and clinicians to engage with patients or monitor daily activities.

Patients receive prompts throughout the day to immediately complete a survey: Where are they? Who are they with? How are they emotionally, and what symptoms are they having? The surveys allow them to answer more clearly and honestly without their recollection being clouded by time.

But there are also tools like accelerometry that can measure how much they are moving and geolocation to see whether they are spending all their time isolated at home or with friends or family. The microphone can measure how much speech is happening in the background, and researchers can also have them record a video to be analyzed by software that can interpret emotion in the face and voice.

A 2022 study validated the use of accelerometry in digital phenotyping, demonstrating correlations with active self-reports of time spent in goal-directed activities and motivational symptoms. Another study in 2021 showed that machine-learning algorithms with access to geolocation and accelerometry data could classify the presence of a psychotic disorder with 80% accuracy.

“We think that by measuring these behaviors in the real world, we might be able to obtain better sensitivity and specificity in predicting psychosis than clinical interviews alone,” Strauss said. “In particular, we’re interested in negative symptoms like reduction in motivation, socialization or emotion. These occur years before subthreshold hallucinations or delusions and offer the earliest window into the risk period.”

A remaining key barrier to early detection is access—to care (for patients) and to the patients themselves (for clinicians). Only about 20 sites in the United States (one of which is at UGA) and fewer than 100 in the entire world are specialized in performing clinical evaluations for psychosis risk.

Strauss offers a couple of potential solutions.

One is a six-site study called Computerized Assessment of Psychosis Risk. Funded by about $10 million from NIMH, it is developing a computerized battery of tests meant to tap into the neural mechanisms underlying symptoms. These tests will be administered online to predict an individual’s level of developing a psychotic disorder. Developing a tool that clinicians without specialized training can use to determine psychosis risk may allow more individuals to receive services who would have never otherwise been referred for help.

Another is simply to reduce the stigma.

“I’ve often wished that something like the ALS ice bucket challenge would be done for serious mental illnesses like schizophrenia,” Strauss said. “We need to raise awareness and try to understand the disorder before it takes root.”

Original story: Written by David Mitchell
Photo of Dr. McDowell & Dr. Clemenz: Lauren Corcino
Photo of Dr. Strauss: David Mitchell

Research Spotlight, Sun Joo (Grace) Ahn

Dr. Grace Ahn, Associate Professor, Advertising


Dr. Sun Joo (Grace) Ahn, Professor, Advertising & Public Relations, never thought she would become an academic. Her dad worked in sales for a very long time at multinational corporations in South Korea, and Grace still remembers her dad telling her about the challenges of leading large, integrative teams of people from different backgrounds and the excitement of finally being able to close a deal after months of preparation. She said, “I didn’t really understand much of the content of what was being said- but was always in awe of how the adult world worked and at the multinational scale of things.”

Looking back now, though, Grace shared that “it’s funny how my dad’s experiences and wisdom delivered to me during long conversations over dinner impacted my career choices: I love thinking about how persuasive messages can be designed and evaluated, the processes and outcomes of persuasion, pulling together large integrative teams for research, and ultimately developing interventions for large-scale attitude and behavior change. I never intended to be a professor of advertising but maybe my dad secretly knew all along!”

“Studying persuasion is a constant lesson in humility and the appreciation of diversity,” said Dr. Ahn. “Communication science is complicated and fascinating, because it is very much a relational science, where interactions between the medium, user, and contextual details all matter. The human stands at the center of our science and their lived experiences play a key role in how persuasive messages are processed and interpreted. Understanding the diversity and complexity of these relationships and designing a successful intervention to modify behavior, particularly in the context of everchanging technologies always keeps me on my toes,” Grace said. “What surprises me most about working on these types of projects is that understanding human behaviors and how they interact with technologies never, ever gets any easier (despite all these years)!”

Communication undergirds almost every human activity we can think of; it’s omnipresent. As a result, there are many more armchair scientists in this neck of the woods than there may be in, say, physics or chemistry. Grace added, “It’s surprisingly challenging to get noncommunication scholars to understand what communication science is and why it is important. Despite the seemingly frivolous nature of our research topics (e.g., entertainment, video games, social media), we employ systematic and rigorous methodologies to address our scientific inquiries.”

“Media and communication are weaved into almost every part of our lives and we are far more impacted by mediated communication than we realize; yet, it’s often a challenge to be taken seriously when your area of research is virtual reality, avatars, and video games.”

Grace has over 20 years of training and experience in media psychology with an emphasis on technology-integrated community-level interventions. She is currently serving as the Deputy Director and a MPI of the Center for Children’s Health Assessment, Research Translation, and Combating Environmental Racism, which is part of her current $4.5 million grant from the National Institute of Environmental Health.

The Center for Children’s Health Assessment, Research Translation, and Combating Environmental Racism (CHARTER), works to develop effective strategies to translate research findings of importance to children’s environmental health to relevant stakeholders in the community, academia, and healthcare. The research team with CHARTER know that working with community partners are the key to developing communication products that can be used to improve children’s health. The center acknowledges the structural nature of health inequity and is working on projects that address how structural inequities can negatively impact children’s health via research projects and community engagement (e.g., social media activities, training community health workers, K-12 outreach programs).

In recent years, Dr. Ahn has really expanded her partnerships with grassroots, non-profit organizations in the community, translating science into actionable, technology-mediated interventions. “When I launch interventions with these community partners, my research team gets to know them well and over the years, and we develop strong friendships with people who share our vision of leveraging science to help people live happier, healthier lives,” she said. “Being able to directly see and interact with community members and observe the positive impact of my research really makes all the hard work worth it. As many of us understand, this job is much more than “just a job”—it creates a lot of meaning in my life. The thrill of making discoveries and generating new knowledge never gets old, but I truly love the opportunity to be able to give back to community through my research. I think that intrinsic reward is what keeps me up working late at nights and drives a lot of the motivation behind my recent work.”

“My research program that started out with a small $20,000 internal grant has now become a sizeable enterprise with over $10 million in extramural funding. The interesting thing is that none of these people are in the field of communication; but their mentorship, guidance, and friendship over the years has allowed my scholarship to dramatically expand beyond its initial narrow focus to something that is much more transdisciplinary and meaningful,” Grace added.

More information about Dr. Ahn’s research: Center for Advanced Computer-Human Ecosystems (CACHE)

More info.: Grace Ahn
Written by: Andrea Horsman

2023 AAAS Lifetime Fellows Elected


The American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), the world’s largest general scientific society and publisher of the Science family of journals, annually bestows the honor of Lifetime Fellow for extraordinary achievements leading to advancement in science. This award is one of the most distinguished honors within the scientific community.

This year, two scholars from the Owens Institute for Behavioral Research were awarded this prestigious title.

Ping Ma is a Distinguished Research Professor in Statistics and an adjunct professor of computer science at UGA. He has authored or co-authored more than 80 research articles and was recognized with the National Science Foundation Distinguished Lecture in 2021. His work lies in development of statistical theory and methods to solve scientific and engineering problems with broad societal impacts. He was recognized in the statistics category by AAAS.

“I was deeply honored to be elected to AAAS Fellow,” said Ma. “I have been fortunate to work with many colleagues at Owen Institute on many important behavioral research projects, which have been a very rewarding experience.”

He is currently working on statistical and data science, which play a significant role in modern society. They are used extensively in various fields, including healthcare, business, finance, social sciences, and many others. Statistical and data science help us to understand and interpret data, make informed decisions, and solve real-world problems. Statistical and data science provide valuable insights into human behavior and social trends, which the researchers at Owen Institute have been focused on.

Ronald Simons is a Regents’ Professor in Sociology, a Fellow in the Center for Family Research, and co-director of the Center on the Biological Embedding of Social Events and Relationships at OIBR. He has received numerous awards for his research including best article awards from three different professional organizations and the UGA SEC Academic Achievement Award. The National Institutes of Health have provided nearly $50 million dollars of support for his longitudinal studies since 1990, and his research has resulted in over 300 peer-reviewed articles.

Simons stated that, “It is a great honor to be inducted as a fellow into the AAAS and I am humbled to be included in this group of accomplished scientists.”

Much of his scholarship has involved investigations of the mechanisms whereby social-environmental conditions and health risk behaviors become biologically embedded via gene expression and trigger onset of various chronic illnesses. An important component of this work has been the utilization of blood-based epigenetic markers to calculate, in years and months, the extent to which an individual is experiencing accelerated or decelerated biological aging.

These new Fellows will be celebrated for their scientific and socially notable achievements spanning their careers in Washington, D.C., in summer 2023.

Written by: Andrea Horsman

HHMI grant will help UGA advance evaluation of teaching

UGA faculty members (left to right) Tessa Andrews, Peggy Brickman, Paula Lemons and Erin Dolan. (Photo by Lauren Corcino)


A research team from the University of Georgia will join 103 institutions from across the country to form a collaborative learning community that seeks to foster inclusive undergraduate science education.

Funded by a six-year, $493,065 grant from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute’s Inclusive Excellence 3 (IE3) initiative, the UGA team will focus on three areas of effective and inclusive teaching including changes in policy, effective instructor development and optimal sources of evidence.

The HHMI’s IE3 initiative challenges U.S. colleges and universities to substantially and sustainably build capacity for students to have meaningful and positive experience in science through which they will better understand and engage in scientific thinking and discovery, especially students from backgrounds that have been historically excluded from the sciences.

Of the nearly one million students who enter college intending to study STEM, more than half will not complete a degree in a STEM field. Those who leave STEM are disproportionately students who are first in their family to attend college, students who begin at community colleges and students from historically excluded ethnic and racial groups.

The 104 participating institutions have been divided into seven Learning Community Clusters, or LCCs, that comprise approximately 15 schools each. These clusters will focus on the content of the introductory science experience, evaluating effective and inclusive teaching, and building partnerships between the two- and four-year schools.

Leveraging their collective experiences and resources, the UGA LCC4 research team aims to advance policies around inclusive and effective teaching for promotion and tenure, and to improve sources of evidence used to evaluate teaching more robustly and holistically.

“I think that one of the things we know from lots of research on teaching is that it’s not just about instructor knowledge and skills,” said program director Erin Dolan, who serves as Georgia Athletic Association Professor of Innovative Science Education in the Franklin College of Arts & Sciences Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology. “It’s also about incentives, rewards and friction in the environment. What incentivizes an instructor to change their teaching if they need to? How do they know they need to change their teaching? What evidence can inform how they teach, including any changes they make? And then what makes it possible for changes to be sustained over time?”

According to Dolan, one of the things that the university’s recent NSF-funded, $2 million Department and Leadership Teams for Action (DeLTA) project did, which this project capitalizes on, is move away from assuming that faculty are going to be effective teachers from the first time they teach, and toward this idea of continuous improvement.

“And that’s really what we want,” Dolan said, “for people to be reflective teachers who base their teaching decisions on evidence.”

This new project is inherently a team effort. The core team is made up of two groups of faculty and administrators: an implementation team and an advisory team. Along with Dolan, the implementation team members include Tessa Andrews, associate professor in the Department of Genetics; Peggy Brickman, Meigs Professor in the Department of Plant Biology; and Paula Lemons, professor in the Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology and associate dean of Franklin College. The advisory team will function more strategically and includes: Allan Aycock, director of assessment and accreditation, Office of Academic Planning; Michelle Cook, senior vice provost, Office of Institutional Diversity; Meg Mittelstadt and Ruth Poproski, director and associate director, respectively, of the Center for Teaching and Learning, Naomi Norman, associate vice president for Instruction, and Henry Young, Kroger Professor and head of the College of Pharmacy Department of Clinical and Administrative Pharmacy.

“This project definitely builds on the work that got started with the DeLTA project,” Dolain said. “It nicely complements work that’s happening in CTL with the new QEP and with the 2025 plan for promoting diversity and inclusion, along with the University Strategic Plan. It’s really well aligned with where the university is going, and I think that we are poised to make substantial improvements in supporting faculty in teaching more effectively and inclusively.”

More info.: Erin Dolan
Written by: Andrea Horsman