Neurobiology of Aggression Proneness

We recently formulated a model of aggression proneness, which implicates the interplay between negative valence and cognitive systems from the Research Domain Criteria (RDoC) proposed by NIMH. In particular, we believe that heightened sensitivity to threat impacts the operation of cognitive systems, such as biased attention and vigilance, and thus reduces resources for calling up cognitive control. ERP data have so far supported our contention that persons high on aggression proneness show disrupted inhibitory control only under relevant emotional conditions (Verona & Bresin, 2015, International Journal of Psychophysiology). Chris Patrick and I have applied this model and expanded on it to develop understandings of extreme forms of violence, including mass murderers (Verona & Patrick, 2015, Psychiatric Times). This set of findings has led to a refinement in my thinking of more precise interplay between affective and cognitive systems in aggression, from which we intend to follow up with a series of studies that will examine whether acute and sustained threat exposure actually alter cognitive systems, specifically brain circuits involved in attentional alerting and cognitive inhibition, respectively, among persons with varying levels of aggression proneness. This study has been funded by the National Institute of Mental Health. Melanie Bozzay's Dissertation will also examine the extent to which the interplay of these systems and aggressive behavior may vary as a function of sleep restriction.

Gender Differences in Pathways to Substance Use or Desistance, and Violence

This study was funded by National Institute of Drug Abuse to Dr. Edelyn Verona in order to examine distinct etiological pathways to substance use in men and women. A focus of a couple of review papers (Javdani, Sadeh, & Verona, 2011a, Clinical Psychology Review, 2011b, Psychology, Public Policy, & Law) suggests that female-specific conceptualizations of antisocial behavior are justified by evidence that certain individual level etiological factors are particularly relevant for women. In addition, closely examining gender as an individual difference variable as well as a socially-relevant category exposes the role of gender in and its implications for existing research and highlights the critical contexts in which female antisociality manifests and is maintained (e.g., interpersonal violence, sex work). This project empirically tests some of these notions by exploring distinct genetic and environmental contributors to substance use desistance and violence in women and men, using a longitudinal approach. We use multivariate models to predict pathways for desistance and determine whether these models differ between men and women.

Studies have already come out of this work, including one that examines childhood sexual maltreatment and history of sex exchange as important for understanding female and male substance use disorders (Verona, Murphy, & Javdani, 2016, Psychology of Violence).

Negative Emotionality and Self-Regulation

In a series of studies, we are examining links between stress, negative affect, and dysregulated behaviors, including self-harm or drug use. For example, an analog paradigm is being used to analyze whether negative affect is decreased following the experience of pain when individuals are primed to ruminate about negative events (Bresin & Verona, 2016). The use of a eye-blink startle reflex paradigm allowed us to more closely map patterns of negative emotional activation in the context of rumination and pain induction, as a way of understanding the functions of self-harm and their outcomes, which have implications for the understanding and treatment of syndromes involved self-injurious behavior. In another study, we are examining links betweeen negative affect and drug use coping, using an ecological momentary assessment paradigm, and whether cognitive control measured variously in the lab modulates links between negative affect and drug use as emotion regulation. These projects are being conducted by Konrad Bresin, for which he received a National Research Service Award from NIDA.

Gendered Manifestations of Psychopathic Traits

We continue to examine links between psychopathic traits and various emotional and behavioral syndromes, as a way of identifying differences in how psychopathic traits may be expressed across the genders, and to uncover processes that represent common and distinct vulnerabilities for the manifestations of personality disorders across the genders.

Two studies published in the APA journal Personality Disorders: Theory, Research and Treatment investigated gender differences in emotional manifestations of psychopathy factors . First, we found that whereas the impulsive-antisocial traits of psychopathy (Factor 2) relate to Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD) similarly across the genders, the interaction of affective-interpersonal deficits (Factor 1) and impulsive-antisocial traits (Factor 2) of psychopathy represent risk for BPD only in women (Sprague, Javdani, Sadeh, Newman, & Verona, 2012). Similar results were uncovered in regards to a history of suicidality or self-harm, and BPD mediated the relationship between psychopathy and suicidality in different ways across the genders (Verona, Sprague, & Javdani, 2012). Mike Kruepke and I (Kruepke & Verona, under review) worked on a replication and extension of this prior work, demonstrating more nuanced results than the previous papers: psychopathic interpersonal-affective traits seem to protect from emotional dysregulation like BPD in men but not in women, and women who score high on both the interpersonal (arrogance, manipulation) and antisocial (delinquency, criminal versatility) facets of psychopathy showed the most BPD symptoms.

In terms of externalizing correlates of psychopathy across the genders, the picture is different from the above work on emotional dysregulation. Instead, in two papers looking at gender differences in psychopathy links to intimate partner violence (Mager, Bresin, & Verona, 2014, Personality Disorders: Theory, Research and Treatment) and substance use (Schulz, Murphy, & Verona, 2016, Law & Human Behavior), we found that interpersonal-affective features of psychopathy are more linked to these externalizing behaviors in men than in women, with women high on these traits likely protected from engaging in violence and drug use.

Existing research on fear reactivity, however, suggests that female psychopathy is similar to male psychopathy. A study in female inmates showed that those high on psychopathy exhibited deficient startle reactivity during picture viewing, particularly to images of others in distress, versus to images involving direct threat (e.g., pointed gun; Verona, Bresin, & Patrick, 2014, Journal of Abnormal Psychology).

Neurobiology, Externalizing, & Comorbid Syndromes

Previous research has shown that neurobiological indicators of dysregulated performance monitoring are associated with the externalizing spectrum of psychopathology. However, the extent to which these deficits in cognitive functioning represent vulnerability for externalizing psychopathology more broadly or whether there may be differences that distinguish disorders (e.g. antisocial personality disorder, conduct disorder, alcohol use disorder, and drug use disorder) is still unknown. Utilizing data gathered from diagnostic interviews and psychophysiology (ERP) measures, our lab seeks to understand the unique and shared variance in externalizing psychopathology as well as phenotypically similar disorders as it relates to cognitive patterns of error monitoring and awareness.

Gender, Sex Work and Exchange

We have begun a program of research that examines individual level characteristics (e.g., psychopathic traits, personality) and mental health features among persons engaging in different forms of sex work, as well as those consuming these services. We plan to assess the various forms that sex work takes, including more traditional sex work (i.e., street prostitution, escorting) and various other sexual services, such as stripping and the adult porn industry, as well as their prevalence and associated characteristics in various populations, including college students, drug users, and legal and illegal sex workers. One study has already come out of this program of research (Edwards & Verona, 2016, Journal of Abnormal Psychology), in which we found that impulsive-antisocial traits of psychopathy (irresponsibility, reckless disregard, delinquency) are associated with higher risk for engaging in and being charged with prostitution in women, whereas the interpersonal-affective traits of psychopathy (arrogance, callousness, manipulation) are associated with engagement in sex exchange situations (typically as consumers) by men. Another ongoing study has shown that men and women college students endorse engagement in both provision and consumption of sexual services and/or sex exchange, with elevated rates for consumption relative to provision. Results of this study also further support relationships between impulsive-antisocial psychopathic traits and provision of sexual services, along with interpersonal-affective psychopathic traits and consumption of services in a college student sample. We believe this work has implications for developing educational programs tailored to individuals presenting with identified mental health and personality vulnerabilities, with the ultimate goal of targeting and reducing HIV-risk behavior. This work is being coordinated by Bethany Edwards.

Gender, Sexual Violence and Coercion, and the Victim-Offender Overlap

We are examining how pathological personality traits (e.g., psychopathy), adherence to traditional gender role beliefs, and peer group influences are involved in sexual violence, both within and outside of formal romantic relationships. We are also examining to gender differences as well as identify factors that explain the high co-occurrence of perpetration and victimization in sexual violence contexts. We are collaborating with Dr. Rachael Powers from the Criminology Department, as well as Dr. Jose Hernandez and Crystal Coombes from the Office of Diversity, Inclusion & Equal Opportunity at USF to focus on campus sexual violence research and education. One study has already come out of this program of research (Hoffmann & Verona, in preparation), in which we examined psychopathic trait correlates of sexual violence against intimate partners among a sample of male and female substance users. We found that the interpersonal-affective traits of psychopathy (arrogance, callousness, manipulation) are associated with higher endorsements of sexual violence against intimates by men but lower endorsements of sexual violence among women, even though both genders reported similar frequencies of sexual coercion tactics against their partners. This work is being coordinated by Amy Hoffmann.

Psychopathic Traits, Aggression, and Relationships with Power

The literature on psychopathy and aggression, while thoroughly explored with regards to violence risk assessment in forensic settings, has not yet sufficiently examined relationships longitudinally to identify the predictive validity of the psychopathy factors (interpersonal-affective and impulsive-antisocial) in relation to different forms of aggression when controlling for past history of aggression. Furthermore, it is currently unclear how experiences of power and dominance may play a role in examining psychopathic aggression. As such, our lab has been using self-report measures that capture psychopathic traits, overt and covert aggression, and differential relationships with power (feeling powerful, attention to power, and desire for power) to understand the dynamics at work between these constructs. One study has come out of this research so far, and it found that a desire for power may be more associated with antisocial traits and a greater propensity for overt forms of aggression, while aggression was generally uncorrelated with interpersonal-affective traits and feelings of power (McKinley & Verona, in preparation). We believe that this research has implications for the adaptivity of psychopathic traits in positions of power (interpersonal-affective psychopathic traits may be more conducive to wielding power). This work is being coordinated by Sean McKinley.

G3 Be More Program Evaluation

The DARC Lab is currently conducting an evaluation of the G3 Be More program. G3 is a non-profit mentoring organization that aims to redirect youth at risk for problematic developmental trajectories toward more sustainable and positive life directions. The G3 Be More program is a mixed athletics holistic program, incorporating incentive-based mentoring in academics, social/physical development, life skills, and career training. Our program evaluation seeks to address gaps in the literature by including a more robust sample size across multiple time points, assessing a variety of risk factors and personality traits to estimate better indicators of success, and including an attention control group to demonstrate that G3 is effective beyond other youth programs. Analyses on pilot data have shown significant increases in post-program prosocial behavior and peer relations and significant decreases in post-program antisocial behaviors, hyperactivity, and parental corporal punishment (McKinley & Verona, in preparation). This work is being coordinated by Sean McKinley.

Miracles Outreach Program Evaluation

We have begun a collaboration with a community-based non-profit organization geared toward serving at-risk youth involved in the child welfare system throughout Florida. The youth involved in this organization include those who have experienced numerous foster care placements, juvenile justice involvement, and severe mental health history, along with commercially sexually exploited youth. As part of this longitudinal project, we are leading an evaluation related to the effectiveness of this organization in its ability to change maladaptive behavior among at-risk youth. Specifically, we are interested in examining whether involved youth exhibit increases in positive outcomes (e.g., achievement motivation, self-esteem) and decreases in negative outcomes (e.g., fewer psychiatric hospitalizations, fewer juvenile justice contacts, conduct problems) throughout their time in the program. This work is being coordinated by Bethany Edwards.

Emotional & Cognitive Vulnerabilities for Suicide Risk

We are examining emotional and cognitive processes linked to suicide ideation and behaviors. In one study, we examined how insomnia may impact cognitive functioning so as to increase hopelessness and suicidal ideation (Bozzay, Karver, & Verona, 2016). Other work explores internalizing as well as externalizing trajectories to suicide and violence risk (e.g., Verona, Sachs-Ericsson, & Joiner, 2004; Verona, Bozzay, & Mendez, in preparation). This work is is currently being led by Melanie Bozzay.