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Research Projects in the Lab

With a longstanding interest in the social-cognitive basis of psychopathology across the lifespan, our lab's current focus is on understanding personality disorder Criterion A (self- and interpersonal function) as it relates to other aspects of personality pathology and psychopathology more general. These interests translate into several Assessment-focused studies which we describe below. We are also interested in interventions that may target Criterion A function in populations affected by personality pathology but also populations where attachment disruption occurred. This interest translates into several Intervention-focused studies which we describe below.

Parent-Child Mentalizing

(Project leaders: Salome Vanwoerden and Sophie Kerr)

In this study, funded by a NIMH F31 grant awarded to Salome Vanwoerden, we are developing and evaluating an observational coding system for mentalizing as it occurs during a parent-child interaction. Currently, assessment of mentalizing, or the ability and proclivity to attribute mental states to the self and other, relies on static assessment using questionnaires, interviews, and behavioral tasks. What these measures lack is a real-time assessment of mentalizing as it occurs during interactions with others. This novel coding scheme will be the first to evaluate mentalizing in the environment that it actually occurs, providing a more ecologically valid assessment.

Personalized Feedback Intervention for HIV/AIDS Affected Adults

Funded by the NIAAA we investigate the effects of an intervention based on social learning theory to affect adherence and other outcomes in HIV infected adults. This study is in collaboration with Drs. Mike Zvolensky, Clayton Neighbors and Thomas Giordano and takes place at the Thomas Street Clinic in Houston.

Treatment Outcomes for the Adolescent Diagnosis Assessment Prevention and Treatment Center (UH-ADAPT)

(Project leaders: Kiana Wall & Francesca Penner)

Adolescence is a critical period for the development of psychopathology, and efforts to improve diagnosis, assessment, and treatment in adolescence are imperative to help to prevent long-term mental health difficulties. This study aims to improve mental health treatment for adolescents and young adults with emotional and interpersonal problems by collecting baseline and follow-up data following diagnostic assessment (abbreviated or comprehensive evaluation) and/or throughout the course and after completion of group therapy treatment. Our goal is to answer these research questions: 1) What is the relationship between social cognition, emotion regulation and psychopathology in our population? 2) Is outpatient group treatment aimed at addressing interpersonal and emotional dysfunction effective for adolescents and young adults? 3) What interpersonal and emotional mechanisms account for clinically meaningful change during and post-treatment? This research is conducted with youth and families at our lab’s adolescent clinic, the UH-ADAPT Center, which is directed by Dr. Sharp. Our research on the effectiveness of group treatment has also been supported by a grant from the American Psychological Foundation.

Identity Development in Teenagers

(Project leader: Francesca Penner)

Identity development is a central task of adolescence. During this time, as teens are expanding their social networks, thinking about their future, and building autonomy from their parents, psychological symptoms or extreme environmental stressors may disrupt the natural process of identity development. However, there is still lack of understanding about how this process goes awry; part of this reason is that there is no agreed upon way of measuring and assessing identity development as it relates to psychopathology during adolescence. This research project aims to explore a variety of methods evaluating adaptive and maladaptive aspects of identity development. A secondary component of this study is to provide information on the development of identity among typical adolescents and factors associated with healthy identity development. Collaborations for this study include Big Brothers Big Sisters, Ball High School, The Kinkaid School, and KIPP Connect.

Perceptions of Dimensional and Categorical Presentations of Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD)

(Project leader: Kiana Wall)

While studies have shown mixed results from the perspective of clinicians regarding preference for one personality disorder diagnostic system above another, nothing is known about the patient or client’s preferences. Therefore, the objective of this study is to gauge the utility of dimensional, categorical and “mixed” diagnostic reports of a borderline personality diagnosis, from the patient perspective. This study is being conducted in collaboration with the National Education Alliance for Borderline Personality Disorder (NEA BPD).

Mentalization-Based Treatment Trial for Suicidal Adolescents

(Project leader: Ronnie McLaren)

We are collaborating with Dr. Laurel Williams at Baylor College of Medicine and Dr. Owen Muir at Brooklyn Minds to run a RCT to test the efficacy of MBT for adolescents with suicidal behaviors. Patients are recruited at the Legacy Clinic and Brooklyn Minds.

Radically Open DBT Biosocial Research

(UH project leaders: Francesca Penner, Kiana Wall)

The purpose of this study is to test the biosocial theory of overcontrolled coping in a sample of adolescents and their parents. The study will first validate a novel parent questionnaire assessing parental caregiving styles theoretically thought to assess maladaptive parenting associated with overcontrol, and second, examine other caregiving styles that may perpetuate temperamental characteristics of overcontrol in adolescents in relation to coping outcomes, such as emotional inhibition and psychological inflexibility, and symptom presentations. This study is being conducted in collaboration with Dr. Karyn Hall at the DBT Center of Houston, Lori Prado, LMHC, LPC-S, at the Center for Cognitive and Dialectical Behavioral Therapies in San Antonio, and Dr. Kirsten Gilbert at Washington University in St. Louis.

A Study of Self-Function in Young People

(Project leader: Eric Sumlin)

Section III of the DSM-5 proposes an alternative model for conceptualizing personality disorders that moves away from traditional diagnostic criteria and emphasizes the more broad areas of self- and other- functioning. Deficits in these domains are prominent in individuals with Borderline Personality Disorder. This study seeks to utilize this new framework to examine the relationship between self- and other- functioning, features of Borderline Personality Disorder, and identity in college students.

Social Cognition and Positive Psychology

(Project leader: Francesca Penner)

This study will examine links between social cognition and positive psychology in two ways, with the overall goal to yield findings that have clinical implications for the prevention and treatment of psychological disorders. This study has two primary aims: 1) Examine mentalizing as a resilience factor for young adults who have experienced adverse childhood events (ACEs), and 2) Test associations between positive psychological constructs such as optimism, hope, gratitude, and life satisfaction and symptoms of personality pathology among young adults.

Mental Health and Campus Experiences of Immigrant Undergraduate Students

(SHSU PI: Tessa Long; UH project leader: Kiana Wall)

Currently, there are over 11 million undocumented immigrants living in the United States. Many of these individuals are children who have lived in the US for their entire lives and are unaware of their immigration status until late adolescence. This creates the first of many stressful barriers when transitioning from high school to college as an undocumented individual. Through collaboration with several higher education institutions in Texas, researchers at Sam Houston State University (SHSU) aim to collect demographics on both documented and undocumented immigrant undergraduates and to quantitatively assess relations between undocumented immigrants' mental health outcomes, academic achievement, and campus experiences. The principal investigator of this study at SHSU is graduate student Tessa Long. The faculty sponsor of this study at SHSU is Dr. Amanda Venta. 

Mediational Intervention for Sensitizing Caregivers for HIV/AIDS Orphans in South Africa

(Project leader: Francesca Penner)

This study, funded by the NICHD, evaluates the feasibility and acceptability of a one-year mentalization-based intervention to children orphaned by HIV/AIDS in South Africa. In this study, we are partnering with NGOs and local Community Based Organizations to empower careworkers in their work with orphans. Our collaborators are Prof. Lochner Marais, Dr. Michael Boivin, Dr. Donald Skinner, Mr. Molefi Lenka, Mr. Joe Serekoane, and Dr. Cilly Shohet and Ms. Deborah Givon.

Mediational Intervention for Sensitizing Caregivers (MISC) for Survivors of Domestic Violence

(Project leader: Ronnie McLaren)

Following our research on MISC for children orphaned by HIV/AIDS in South Africa, we are now testing the feasibility, acceptability, and preliminary outcomes of this one-year mentalization-based intervention for mothers who have been victims of domestic violence. In this study, we are partnering with the Harris County Domestic Violence Coordinating Council to empower mothers in their relationships with their children. Our collaborators are Ms. Barbie Brashear, Dr. Julia Babcock, Dr. Julie McFarlane, Dr. Quenette Walton, and Dr. Ernest Jouriles.

Mediational Intervention for Sensitizing Caregivers (MISC) in the context of reunification after separation due to migration

(Project leader: Jessica Hernandez Ortiz)

Yet a further extension of our MISC work includes a study with Dr. Jodi Berger funded by UH Internal Seed grant program with the aim of evaluating the feasibility and acceptability of MISC for parents and children who were separated through migration and currently undergoing migration. We work very closely with The Alliance as our community-based partner.