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Department of Psychiatry

Department of Psychology
 

Developmental Brain Research

Eating Disorders and Impulsive Aggression


 

This program uses behavioral tasks together with modern biologic techniques, such as brain imaging, in order to study brain function in children, adolescents, and adults. Through such work, we aim to identify mechanisms for serious psychiatric disorders, how such mechanisms change over time, and the effect of certain interventions on behavior and associated brain function. By increasing our understanding of how these brain mechanisms contribute to and shape mental illness, we expect to better identify effective treatments for individual patients.

Our program currently focuses on two main areas of study:

    • Eating Disorders, including Anorexia Nervosa, Bulimia Nervosa, and Binge Eating Disorder.
    • Aggression, with a particular focus on Impulsive Aggression in youth. This type of aggression is commonly associated with oppositional defiant disorder or conduct disorder, but can occur in other conditions as well. 

 

All studies are conducted at the University of Colorado. We are  physically located at The Children’s Hospital Denver and work closely with the Children’s Hospital Eating Disorder Treatment Program. We collaborate for research in the adult Eating Disorder population with the Eating Disorders Center Denver. For the Impulsive Aggression research we are working closely with the Children’s Hospital Intensive Outpatient Psychiatry Program.

Our brain imaging studies are conducted at the University of Colorado Denver’s Brain Imaging Center.  In addition, we are collaborating on a project that explores mindfulness in psychotherapy with the Psychology Group Ludwig Grepmair.

 

How we experience ourselves and how we react and respond to our environment changes with age, life experience, and with shifts in the environment itself. Developmentally, there are critical times in our life where changes take place, such as when we learn to walk and talk, attend school, get married, have children, retire, just to name a few. In other words, throughout life we are constantly in a state of change and development, and in order to live the happiest life possible, we have to adapt new skills and behaviors in order to meet the ever-changing demands we are faced with.

Behavior is mediated through specific brain function, and over the past ten years there been great advances made with respect to which brain areas contribute to what type of behavior. For instance, some of these neuroscience and experimental psychology-based concepts have focused on what motivates us to do things and what chemicals in the brain mediate these processes. Other research has investigated concepts related to decision making, specifically looking at how input from the environment triggers brain function and consequent behavior.

If behavior changes over time and is also related to specific brain functions, then brain function should also be adaptive to some degree.

Important to note is that behavior and brain function are, most likely, continuously shaped by what we learn and experience in life as opposed to being set or predetermined. That is, when we experience a pleasant or unpleasant situation, our brain learns to seek one and avoid the other, and the next time we come close to the same experience, our brain may signal to us to react quickly to make the best choice possible. Thus, although brain function is highly determined by genetics, learning plays a crucial role in behavior as well.

The idea that behavior most likely determined by both biology and experience is, in our opinion, not only helpful in order to study how and why we act a certain way, but it also provides hope in regards to future treatment developments for problem behavior or mental illness.

We are finding greater evidence that supports the idea that psychiatric disorders run in families and are, at least to some degree, related to biologic traits. On the other hand, psychotherapy works for many people as well. Thus, helping to change behavior and how we think about things can help us feel better and deal more effectively with difficult situations we are sensitive or vulnerable to as a result of our biology.

Lastly, if one grows up with emotional difficulties, that person will probably not grow out of them, but rather “grow into them”. In other words, the problem does not go away. Even though the way one feels and acts may change over time, without taking steps to alleviate the problem, they may still feel distressed over the problem and simply adapt to an unhappy situation. Moreover, the longer one struggles with a problem, the more likely it is that he/she feels weak, a failure, and so forth. That is, by not treating a problem – and treatment can be psychological, pharmacological, social, behavioral, or other – one can easily lose hope. Such attitudes and beliefs may lead to an entirely different life path than one would have chosen if such emotional or other problems had been treated. We believe early identification and intervention of psychological and psychiatric problems is crucial in order to help improve lives in the long run.