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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.


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 identity development associated with symptoms of psychopathology. A secondary component of this study is to provide information on other developmental milestones that occur during this time including: building and extending peer relationships, engaging in new experiences, and becoming more confident and independent. Collaborations for this study include Big Brothers Big Sisters, Ball High School, The Kinkaid School, Debakey High School, and Scouts.

Parent-Child Mentalizing

(Project leader: Salome Vanwoerden)

In this study, funded by a NIMH F31 grant, 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.

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).


Personality Characteristics in College Students

(Project leader: Kiana Wall)

It is unknown what the typical levels of borderline personality disorder (BPD) symptoms are in college student samples. This study focuses on understanding this question with an eye on intervention in this setting.


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

(Project leaders: Salome Vanwoerden, 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 and Dr. Palo. Our research on the effectiveness of group treatment is also being supported by a grant from the American Psychological Foundation.

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

(Project leader: Salome Vanwoerden)

In this line of research testing 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.