Daniela Schiller, Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai
Emotional control and flexibility
A novel line of research is challenging the black box of human cognition: the thoughts and imaginings invoked by external cues and preceding actions. One way of confronting this challenge is by using real-time fMRI to gauge internal processes such as imagery. Using this technique, we have demonstrated that external motivational cues interact with neural substrates of motor imagery, which in turn stimulate motor regions that produce actions. We have also shown that imagination could be utilized to attenuate neural and bodily threat expression. Using machine learning we assessed the impact of imagined extinction on the neural threat signature, and found it equally effective as real extinction, similarly utilizing the ventromedial prefrontal cortex as a central hub. Another approach identifies navigational computations in abstract mental space. The talk will describe evidence suggesting that the hippocampus and related regions are not only involved in spatial navigation but also in abstract navigation: the mapping of interactions onto affective dimensions of power and affiliation. Altogether, these studies provide a crucial link between laboratory models of affective processing and real-life naturalistic affective experience. The above studies are examples from a broader line of research mapping the affective landscape, including stimulus-response associations, mental actions, and cognitive mapping. Our ultimate goal is to understand how the human brain orchestrates affective processes in order to confer the right amount of emotional flexibility, evading the rigidity or volatility often observed in affective disorders.