Elizabeth Martin Bailey

2016 Hellman Fellow


Assistant Professor, Psychology & Social Behavior
UC Irvine

Project Title: Response Coherence in Anhedonia

Project Summary:
Generally, my program of research utilizes multiple types of analysis (e.g., self-reports, behavioral tasks, electrophysiology) to examine emotional and social dysfunction in individuals at risk for a serious mental illness as well in those who have already been diagnosed. The Hellman fellowship will support a project focused on anhedonia, or the diminished experience of positive emotion for social stimuli (e.g., spending time with others) or physical stimuli (e.g., food, sex).

Anhedonia is a common symptom of a number of psychiatric and neurological disorders (e.g., schizophrenia, depression, Parkinson's disease). In all disorders, individuals with anhedonia have worse outcomes compared to those without anhedonia. Also, anhedonia is evident before the onset of schizophrenia, and it predicts the future onset of schizophrenia-spectrum disorders above and beyond any psychotic-like symptoms. At the same time, anhedonia is present in the general population and is also associated with worse emotional and social functioning, such as increased negative affectand fewer friends. Overall, anhedonia appears to be a stable, enduring trait in many groups of people that is not well treated by existing interventions.

Given that anhedonia involves decreased self-reported positive emotion and increased negative emotion, many have hypothesized that anhedonia might involve an emotional deficit. However, the exact nature of any emotional deficit in anhedonia is still unclear. For example, a lack of "response coherence," (i.e., the extent to which response measures of emotion organize and synchronize) between self-reported emotional experience and behavioral manifestations (e.g., facial expressions) has been reported in schizophrenia compared to control participants. At the same time, others report similar response coherence for schizophrenia and control groups between self-reported emotional experience and brain activity in regions associated with emotional salience.

Importantly though, inconsistent response coherence findings may be due to context effects including the psychological context (e.g., level of anhedonia; social vs. physical anhedonia) or physical context (e.g., social vs. non-social stimuli; stimuli which are inherently pleasant vs. unpleasant). Thus, the current project aims to uncover the true nature of anhedonia by identifying patterns of response coherence within and between emotion measures while considering the crucial role of context.

To do this, the project will involve the recording of brain activity using electrophysiology while individuals with and without anhedonia engage in pleasant and unpleasant social tasks (i.e., a conversation meant to foster positive feeling about the conversational partner; a task designed to elicit feelings of stress due to planned negative social evaluations) and pleasant and unpleasant non-social task (i.e., tasting desirable or undesirable foods). We will also collect self-report measures of emotions and record facial expressions and body movements. Because anhedonia is associated with poor outcomes and is predictive of serious mental disorders, a better understanding of anhedonia could help in the development of new interventions for this poorly treated symptom and also provide evidence about the susceptibility for developing a serious mental illness. Thus, the current project aims to provide a clearer understanding of anhedonia with theses ultimate goals as a driving force.

“Having a Hellman fellowship will provide me with the valuable resources I need to advance the field of psychopathology. In addition, it will help me to foster crucial relationships with researchers in other academic units on campus that will not only advance my program of research but also allow for opportunities for interdisciplinary collaborations in the future.”