Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience Lab

PI: Giovanni Tirado-Santiago, Ph.D.


Our main goal at the Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience Lab is to understand how cognition, mostly attention, and emotion interact.  For this we use three main techniques:  functional neuroimaging, computerized cognitive experiments, and self-report instruments to measure personality traits, cognitive styles and affect.  Through collaboration with other researchers we also use EEG/ERP and genetic techniques.  Our target population is mostly adolescents and young adults.  The research projects in progress right now are described below.


1. Attention processes in women treated with chemotherapy for breast cancer

Giovanni Tirado-Santiago, Ph.D., Principal Investigator

We seek to understand the relationship between anxiety symptoms and chemotherapy in the attentional deficits experienced by breast cancer patients.  Most of breast cancer patients receive chemotherapy and experience both an increase in anxiety symptoms and some degree of cognitive dysfunctions.  Anxiety involves an exaggerated level of attention toward threatening information, which may have detrimental effects on attentional functions.  It is also possible that chemotherapy has an effect on these deficits.  However, anxiety and chemotherapy probably have unique detrimental effects over distinct attentional processes.  To test this, this study seeks to understand the relationship between anxiety and the presence of chemotherapy in attentional processes in 80 women (25-65 years old) diagnosed with breast cancer and 40 healthy controls.  Participants are divided into three groups.  We will recruit 40 women who have received a breast cancer diagnosis and are yet to be assigned for a chemotherapy treatment.  A second group will be comprised of 40 women who have received chemotherapy for breast cancer during the 2 years previous to recruitment.  A third control group will be comprised of 40 women who have not undergone chemotherapy or received a breast cancer diagnosis.  All participants a) will be assessed for anxiety symptoms and attention deficits, and b) will be tested with cognitive tasks that measure selective and sustained attention.  The understanding of the relationship between affective problems and chemotherapy treatment could better inform the diagnosis and intervention strategies designed to help breast cancer patients and survivors, thus enhancing their quality of life.  This project is supported by a grant from the University of Puerto Rico.

2. Neurocognitive mechanisms involved in the processing of attentional biases for negative information in Latino adolescents and young adults (NIMHD U54)

Nelson D. Cruz-Bermúdez, Ph.D., Principal Investigator

Giovanni Tirado-Santiago, Ph.D., Principal Investigator

This is a Translational Health Disparity Investigator Award, granted by the Puerto Rico Clinical and Translational Research Consortium.  The project studies in a non-clinical sample of Latinos, and from a developmental perspective, attentional biases to negative information and the neurocognitive mechanisms related to their expression, maintenance, and management.  Attentional biases to negative information are persistent and difficult to control cognitive processes that maintain symptoms in both anxiety and depression. We are studying these biases at several levels of analysis: self-reports, psychophysiology, functional neuroimaging, and computerized cognitive experiments.  We aim to recruit 25 adolescents (13-17 years old) and 25 young adults (21-29 years old).  All participants attend two sessions.  On the first, they fill out self-report instruments that measure (a) anxiety symptoms; (b) depressive symptoms; (c) emotion regulation; and (d) attention.  Immediately after this they perform two cognitive experiments that measure reactivity to negative information.  Electrophysiological responses are measured using electroencephalograms and event related potentials, which are techniques suitable to measure fast responses and changes in brain activity.  During a second session, participants undergo brain imaging sessions at the magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) facility at the Imaging Center of the University of Puerto Rico Medical Sciences Campus to assess: a) brain activity associated to tasks involving cognitive inhibition related to emotional content as measured by Blood Oxygen Level Dependent (BOLD) contrast (fMRI), b) BOLD-based resting-state functional connectivity among pre-selected brain regions of interest (fcMRI), and c) anatomical volume of selected brain regions (MRI).  While EEG/ERP allows for a high temporal resolution of fast responses to emotional stimuli, fMRI/fcMRI permits to study with a fine spatial resolution hemodynamic activity in brain regions and circuits necessary for cognitive control and inhibition.  This type of research allows to relate several units of analysis (as stated in NIMH RDoC criteria), which may be useful for the development of integrative strategies to understand and treat affective disorders on which attentional biases and deficits in cognitive inhibition are common.  Finally, since these disorders arise from the interplay between organic and sociocultural factors, the focus on Latino youth and young adults may allow us to bridge a large gap in the knowledge on the neurocognitive mechanisms involved in affective processing in this population.  This project is funded through a U54 grant to the PR Clinical and Translational Research Consortium.

3. Relationship between cognitive and affective processes and circadian rhythms

Giovanni Tirado-Santiago, Ph.D., Principal Investigator

José L. Agosto-Rivera, Ph.D., Principal Investigator

Nelson D. Cruz-Bermúdez, Ph.D., Principal Investigator

Human behavior is set at rates that last for about a day (circadian rhythms).  Sleep and temperature are two of the most studied rhythms.  Animal research has demonstrated that these rates are related to specific brain regions (such as the suprachiasmatic nucleus), neurohormonal metabolism (such as melatonin concentrations), and gene regulation.  Functional neuroimaging studies (fMRI) have shown that these rhythms can also be identified in brain regions associated with emotional regulation, and cognitive processes such as response inhibition, cognitive inhibition and reappraisal.  Electrophysiological and behavioral studies that also use self-report measures show that although the existence of 24 hr rates is a constant, the synchronicity of these rates with the time at which the sun sets and rises varies between humans.  Thus, they found typologies were some humans are “morning people”, while others are more nocturnal, even when operating at 24 hr rates.

One question that remains unanswered is whether these typologies are associated with cognitive and affective styles.  For example, it has been found that more nocturnal people show more depression symptoms even though they are not clinically depressed.  It has also been observed that cognitive functioning varies during the day with cognitive learning and attention efficiency varying according to the time of day and where in the spectrum of circadian typologies the person is situated.  Despite the close relationship between cognition and affectivity, there are few studies that relate cognitive and emotional styles with circadian rhythms.  Nor is it common to study these styles in humans with relation to genetic variables, even though the literature on animals has found extensive evidence of the genetic regulation of the rhythms in relation to behavioral variables. The purpose of this project is to study the relationship between these genetic and behavioral variables (affective and cognitive) with circadian rhythms.  We aim to recruit 128 young adults between the ages of 18 and 39.  Interventions with participants will last about an hour, in which we will collect data through three techniques: self-report instruments, performance in computerized cognitive tasks, and DNA extraction from a hair sample for the identification of gene polymorphisms associated with circadian rhythms.

4. Cognitive-affective processes in adolescents and young adults

Giovanni Tirado-Santiago, Ph.D., Principal Investigator

In this project we aim to study cognitive processes, mostly attention, and their relationship to affective processes from the perspective of human development. The study of the relationship between cognition and affectivity aims to understand how emotions are regulated. Problems with emotion regulation are risk factors for the development of mood disorders.  This psychological function develops during adolescence and reaches maturity in early adulthood. Because of this, we included teenagers and young adults as participants in order to study the trajectory of constituent processes of this function, such as: sustained attention, selective attention, cognitive inhibition, and cognitive flexibility.

            To accomplish this, we will be using two research techniques: self-report measures and computerized cognitive tasks.  Most instruments and cognitive tasks we will be using have been  used extensively and have been proven as reliable measures for our variables of interest.  The instruments have been translated and adapted to a clear and easily understandable language for our target population.  As for the cognitive tasks, many were created following previous models also found in the literature.  Participants are recruited by availability.  The sample of adolescents is taken from schools, and the young adults are from the University of Puerto Rico, Río Piedras Campus.  Adolescents will be 13-17 years-old and adults ages will be 18-30.  We expect to have a sample of 360 participants per group, with both men and women participating.

The study consists of two phases.  In Phase 1, data collection will be through self-report instruments.  In Phase 2, we will be administering cognitive tasks used to measure variables associated with attention, cognitive flexibility, cognitive inhibition, and decision making.  For this phase’s recruitment, the participants from Phase 1 that expressed interest in participating in Phase 2 are recruited.

5. The development of neurocognitive mechanisms underlying dispositional mindfulness

Lydia C. Rodríguez-Corcelles, B.A. - Doctoral Dissertation for a Ph.D. in Clinical Psychology

Giovanni Tirado-Santiago, Ph.D., Advisor

The project proposes to examine the personality traits, cognitive processes and neural mechanisms underlying the disposition to be mindful (DM) in a cross-sectional study.  DM is thought to have two components: cognitive (mostly attention and task switching) and metacognitive processes (cognitive flexibility and emotion regulation abilities).  The techniques employed to assess DM’s mechanisms and processes will include: computerized cognitive paradigms (CCP), functional neuroimaging and self-report scales.  We expect to recruit 240 healthy participants: 120 adolescents (13-14 years old) and 120 young adults (18-25 years old) of both sexes.  The project will have two phases.  On a first phase, participants will be tested with CCP on both components of DM and will be characterized using self-report measures of personality traits and cognitive styles, to understand a) the relationship between DM (and other variables) with performance in cognitive and metacognitive tasks and b) how this relationship varies between age groups.  In the second phase, a subset of the sample (15 participants per group, 30 participants total) will be selected randomly to participate in a study using brain imaging techniques of blood oxygen level dependent (BOLD) contrast during tasks.  As in the first phase, tasks will also focus on emotion regulation and attentional abilities related to the two components of DM.  This will help us study neural activity associated with DM scores and groups’ developmental differences on cognitive task performance.  Analyses will seek to explore the relation between DM, personality traits and cognitive processes as measured by self-report techniques, with performance on cognitive paradigms and brain activity.  To understand developmental differences in DM, between-subjects ANOVAs will be performed with the following factors: age, self-reports, cognitive tasks conditions, activity in brain regions of interest (ROI), and correlation coefficients of activity in ROIs.  Within-subjects regression analyses will explore the relationship between DM-related personality traits, cognitive processes and neural activity.  Statistical mapping techniques will be used to determine locations of significant brain connectivity and activation. In general, we expect adolescents to perform worse than adults in CCP measuring attention regulation of emotional valence.  This performance will be characterized by higher default mode network activation to negative self-referential content on adolescents, whereas the adult group will have higher fronto-parietal network activation associated with a DM emotion regulation stance.  This study aims to better inform a neurocognitive model for DM’s expression.  Since DM is thought to be an important mechanism for adaptive emotion regulation, the understanding of its mechanisms of action could contribute to identify biomarkers of treatment efficacy and refine interventions directed to improve DM.

6. Rumination and the brain’s default network in adolescents

Cybelle M. López-Valentín, B.A. - Doctoral Dissertation for a Ph.D. in Clinical Psychology

Giovanni Tirado-Santiago, Ph.D., Advisor

The study examines the neurocognitive mechanisms underlying depressive rumination in adolescents.  Specifically, I focus on the brain’s Default-Mode Network (DMN) and related structures.  For these purposes, several neuroimaging techniques will be used: functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), resting-state functional connectivity MRI (rs-fcMRI) and diffusion tensor imaging (DTI).  Non-depressed adolescents and adults underwent a brain-scanning session at the San Jorge Children’s Hospital right after a clinical evaluation to measure basal levels of brain activity of the DMN and relate them to self-reported measures of rumination.  During the scanning session, participants performed an fMRI related-task designed to induce rumination.  rs-fcMRI among selected brain regions was measured before and after completing the task.  It is expected that stimulus presentation will be associated with increased connectivity between the subgenual anterior cingulate cortex (sgACC) and regions of the DMN, especially the posterior cingulate cortex (PCC) in adolescents more than in adults.  Statistical mapping techniques are used to determine locations of significant brain connectivity and activation.  The first goal of this research is to examine correlations between self-reported rumination and DMN activity and the second goal is to study how the systematic induction of ruminative states affects brain activity.  In general, with this proposed research we aim to directly examine the neural circuitry underlying ruminative processes in adolescents.  This knowledge could promote the identification of biomarkers of treatment efficacy, help in the refinement of diagnostic and intervention strategies and guide efforts towards prevention of depression.

7. The relationship between academic and interpersonal stress, emotion regulation and selective attention

Mónica C. Acevedo Molina - Honors thesis for a B.A. in Psychology

Giovanni Tirado-Santiago, Ph.D., Advisor

Undergraduate studies are associated with stressful situations of various typoes; not only do students have to deal with loads of academic stress, they also have to deal with interpersonal stress.  Both manifestations of stress can be associated with both physiological and psychological problems.  They can affect executive functions as well such as the ability to regulate emotions.  Nonetheless, there has not been much written about the role that interpersonal stress plays in a student’s life.  Thus, the study aims to investigate what type of stress has a greater effect on the way college students regulate their emotions, as well as other related mental processes.  This study will have two phases.  The first is a self-report phase, where questionnaires that measure academic stress, interpersonal stress, emotional regulation, are administered.  The main purpose of this phase is to explore the relationship between academic and interpersonal stress, as well as how these two forms of stress are related to other cognitive processes.  To accomplish this, the Academic Stress Scale (EEA) and the Bergen Social Relationships Scale (BSRS) were translated into Spanish and validated in a population of college students from the University of Puerto Rico-Rio Piedras Campus.  The EEA and the BSRS were used to measure academic and interpersonal stress, respectively and the Emotional Regulation Questionnaire (ERQ) was used to measure the use of reappraisal and suppression as emotional regulation strategies.  The second phase will be a cognitive task, where the main focus will be on the relationship between selective attention and interpersonal stress.  A modified version of the Posner Spatial Cueing Paradigm was created to assess the relationship between selective attention and interpersonal stress.

8. Dispositional mindfulness and cognitive flexibility in the management of academic stress in university students

Valerie N. Rodríguez Hernández - Honors thesis for a B.A. in Psychology

Giovanni Tirado-Santiago, Ph.D., Advisor

This study seeks to understand the relationship between two personality traits, dispositional mindfulness and cognitive flexibility, and stress.  The study has two phases.  During the first phase, a sample of university students was given three self-report scales each measuring dispositional mindfulness, cognitive flexibility, or academic stress.  For the second phase, a sample of the students that completed the self-report measures will be participating in a computerized cognitive task that involves cognitive flexibility by changing instructions (“task switching”).  Dispositional mindfulness, cognitive flexibility and performance in the computerized task will serve as predictors of academic stress management.  Specifically, greater dispositional mindfulness and cognitive flexibility will positively correlate with a better management of academic stress.  

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