Influences of genetic variations and acute stress on emotional learning

What is the relationship between genes, stressful experience and how we learn about what is painful and pleasurable in the world? Our past research has shown that individual differences in how emotion influences perception and memory can be partly explained by a person’s genetic inheritance. But what we do not know is whether these differences in emotional bias are due to how quickly or intensely people learn emotional associations, or whether such emotional learning can be linked to genetic variations influencing the availability of neuromodulators (chemicals that allow and regulate communication between nerve cells). Furthermore, our previous research links common genetic variations to negative emotional biases, but it is unclear if and how they influence the transfer of behaviours associated with appetitive stimuli such as rewards. Since appetitive biases have been linked to craving associated with addiction, this study will help to clarify whether genetic variations make people more vulnerable to addictive behaviours. Finally, we are interested in how stress influences emotional learning. For this purpose, we are combining genotyping and stress induction with behavioural measures of emotional learning. This will help us to understand how individual differences in neurochemical availability such as norepinephrine, serotonin and dopamine lead to differences in emotional learning and how this may be altered in situations of acute stress. Thus, we hope to unravel why some people are more likely to develop addictive cravings for certain rewards such as food or alcohol and how this tendency may be enhanced in stressful situations.

The Neurogenetics of Affectively-biased Attention

At any moment humans are bombarded with more sensory information than they can be aware of. Selective attentional filters allow us to sift the wheat from the chaff in relation to our goals. One important factor in tuning such filters is the “affective salience,” or emotional importance, of a stimulus. The goal of this program of research is to better understand affective biases in two specific cognitive processes: selective attention and time perception. Here we are combining electrophysiology with genotyping for targeted polymorphisms, or common genetic variations, to probe the influence of specific neurochemicals on distinct neural mechanisms underlying affectively driven selective attention. Using the tools of genotyping with electrophysiology in humans can provide a crucial window into the influence of neurochemicals norepinephrine, serotonin, and dopamine on neuronal processes that underlie affectively biased attention, allowing us to better understand this fundamental aspect of human cognition involving selective perception of emotionally important aspects of the world.

Cultural and Developmental Influences on Affect-biased Attention

Our findings have shown that genetic differences influence affective biases in visual attention; however, life experience also plays a crucial role. The goal of this project is to better understand affective biases by examining how our emotionally coloured filters are influenced by cultural learning,  as well as how they may shift in content over childhood and adolescence. Our previous research has found that children experience pictures of happy faces as being more arousing and intense than angry faces that are rated as equally arousing and intense by adults. Children also show higher levels of amygdala activation for happy than angry faces, whereas adults show the opposite pattern. One goal of this project is to investigate whether this pattern may be shaped by cultural experiences specific to particular European North Americans, such as parenting practices.

Sociocultural and Situational Influences on Attention to Signals of Climate Change

If you see a news article about climate change, what determines whether the title grabs your attention? The words on that page serve as signals of climate change – as cues directing your attention to the issue. The degree to which your attention is tuned to that information will depend on how concerned you are about the problem. This will, in turn, depend on a variety of social and cultural factors such as your political views, values, economic status, nationality, religion, and cultural identity. It will also depend on situational factors, such as where you live and whether you’ve personally experienced extreme weather events like those exacerbated by a changing climate. Competing goals and priorities stemming from work, school, and family will also affect how much attention you pay to the problem and whether you personally take action. Interestingly, in some people these factors will combine to produce a discrepancy between their explicitly stated level of concern and their implicit level of anxiety about potentially harmful consequences. Our goal is to examine how these sociocultural and situational factors affect how readily people perceive signals of climate change.

To accomplish this, we are collecting data from members of the general community in Vancouver and surrounding municipalities, particularly those at the most risk from sea level rise. Participants will fill out a questionnaire measuring many situational and sociocultural factors and perform a computerized task measuring how much their attention is tuned to signals of a changing climate. We will use a multivariate statistical framework known as Constrained Principal Component Analysis (CPCA) will be used to assess how well the situational and sociocultural measures predict implicit and explicit aspects of attention to and concern about climate change.

Procedural learning in simulated environment: How much of the real-world can be replaced?

When dealing with dangerous scenarios, we expect that the people handling the situations know what they are doing and can do it well; firefighters can fight fires, airplane pilots can pilot airplanes, brain surgeons can surgeon brains, etc. How can we be sure though that their training is complete and thorough? When learning complex procedures, such as surgeries, learning and preparation often occurs through textbooks (not realistic, but very accessible) or real-world practice (very realistic, but inaccessible). With the ubiquitous nature of handheld computers and the advancement of virtual reality in our modern world, these are no longer the only option. Attempts are being made to develop sophisticated simulations to complement and/or replace traditional learning methods. Whether the skills and knowledge obtain in these simulations is transferable back to real world skills, however, remains unknown. We are working with a Surrey-based app development company, Conquer Mobile, to test the efficacy of these systems, contrasting learning outcomes across text-based, simulation-based and real-world learning. In addition, we aim to help improve simulated learning systems, by identifying individual difference, such as stress reactivity, that may influence learning performance. This will help create unique environments for each individual which maximizes their ability to develop and retain new skills from the simulations.