Virginia Tech Neuroscientist Exploring How Clinical Psychology and Neuroscience Converge

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Virginia Tech Neuroscientist Exploring How Clinical Psychology and Neuroscience Converge         

Jim Windell


          Dr. Pearl Chiu is very direct about her outcomes for her research: “By combining direct brain chemistry, behavioral methods, and clinical psychological assessments we’ll be able to make some breakthroughs in understanding and treating depression,” Chiu said recently.

          A neuroscientist, Pearl Chiu leads a cutting-edge research laboratory at the Fralin Biomedical Research Institute at Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, Virginia. She and her laboratory are determined to find new treatments for anxiety, substance use, and mood disorders.

           She was recently interviewed for an article in the Virginia Tech News and that interview has relevance for clinical psychologists. The Harvard trained psychologist said that a fundamental question motivating her is this: How are humans motivated to do what we do?

          “On a neurobiological level, each of our brains is similarly composed,” said Chiu, who is a full professor within the College of Science’s Department of Psychology. “We share the same general structures and cell types — yet as people, we’re all so different. I’ve always wanted to understand the brain’s role in what motivates each of us as individuals.”

          At one time, Chiu treated patients with psychiatric disorders. However, these days her computational psychiatry research program to understand motivation in mental illness and develop neuroscience-guided behaviorally oriented mental health treatments is supported by more than $2.8 million in annual National Institutes of Health funding. Chiu’s laboratory combines computational modeling, human neuroimaging, clinical assessments, and behavioral task data to decode how certain reward learning pathways in the brain underlie decision-making in a range of psychopathologies. Her recent research has specifically uncovered unique neural characteristics of major depressive disorder, risky decision-making in teenagers, substance misuse, and post-traumatic stress disorder.

          In 2021, Chiu and her colleagues published a hallmark study in the Journal of the American Medical Association outlining how specific reward learning processes are related to symptoms in people with clinical depression. The article, entitled “Reinforcement Learning Disruptions in Individuals with Depression and Sensitivity to Symptom Change Following Cognitive Behavioral Therapy,” described using cognitive behavioral therapy as a treatment intervention while mapping how reinforcement learning is altered in depression and changes with symptom improvement.

          One of her latest projects, funded by the National Institute of Mental Health, builds on that work. “We’re now taking it full circle,” Chiu says. “We previously mapped out specific cognitive and brain reward learning processes underlying symptoms of depression. The next step is to change those processes and examine whether symptoms improve when we use behavior to stimulate corrective neural adaptations.”

          She is also working on a breakthrough project with her colleague Read Montague, professor at the Fralin Biomedical Research Institute and director of the institute’s Center for Human Neuroscience Research. For years, neuroscientists have analyzed neurotransmitter signaling in animal models, but Chiu and Montague are among the first to measure neurochemical signaling in people with depression.

          “Based on previous depression research, we can infer that dopamine and serotonin signaling are altered in reward learning regions of the brain, but we’ve never been able to directly measure it in humans until now,” Chiu said. 

          Chiu previously worked as an assistant professor at the Baylor College of Medicine, after working as a postdoctoral researcher in Montague’s laboratory. Raised partially in Taiwan, Michigan, California, and Boston, Chiu completed her undergraduate degree in psychology and doctoral degree in clinical psychology at Harvard.

            Asked in the interview what excites her the most about where her field is headed, she gave this response:It’s exciting how the field is advancing, and by combining direct brain chemistry analysis, behavioral methods, neuroimaging and clinical psychology assessments, I believe that we’ll be able to make some breakthroughs in understanding and treating depression. These new integrative methods can be more precise than medications or psychotherapy at targeting specific neurocognitive processes associated with disrupted motivation in mental health disorders, and that’s what I’m most excited about working toward.”

          To read the complete original article, find it with this title and link:

Where Clinical Psychology and Neuroscience Converge, This Virginia Tech Scientist Takes the Lead.

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