Cognition, The Brain, and Psychopathology

Research in our laboratory has a primary focus on advancing understanding of cognition and the brain, and how brain-behaviour relationships are affected in psychopathology. 

Our research is organized around three core themes:

1. Cognition and Psychopathology: A Transdiagnostic Approach to Cognitive Control and Episodic Memory.  We have developed tasks to assess different components of cognitive control and studied their use in functional neuroimaging research (e.g., Rodrigo et al., 2014; Ruocco et al., 2014). We have detected deficits in cognitive control and episodic memory in individuals with psychopathology, such as borderline personality disorder (BPD; e.g., Ruocco, 2005; Ruocco & Bahl, 2014; Thomsen et al., 2017). We are actively studying how cognitive control and episodic memory, and the brain structures and functions that support them, may be impacted by cumulative life stress across diagnoses (e.g., BPD and major depressive disorder [MDD]). Recently, we have discussed how a dimensional, neuroscience-based framework for studying psychopathology has potential to progress research on personality disorder (Koudys et al., 2019).

2. Cognitive Control and Suicidality: From Neuroimaging Biomarkers to Interventions. We have found that highly lethal self-injurious behaviour in BPD is associated with deficits in cognitive control and problem-solving (Williams et al., 2015). Based on an "ideation-to-action" theoretical framework (see Klonsky et al., 2018), we are studying how suicide attempters differ from suicide ideators in the structural features and functional activation of the brain. We have determined that self-harming patients with BPD who show the greatest reductions in self-harm after dialectical behaviour therapy show the greatest increases in cognitive control-related activity in the prefrontal cortex (Ruocco et al., 2016). In collaboration with the Centre for Addiction & Mental Health (CAMH), we are currently studying the effects of magnetic seizure therapy on suicidal ideation and depression in individuals with BPD, including the impacts of the brain stimulation treatment on brain systems involved in cognitive control and emotion regulation.

3. Family Studies of Borderline Personality Disorder: Impulsivity, Cognition and Neuroimaging Biomarkers. We have found that impulsive behaviour patterns and impulse-spectrum psychiatric diagnoses are transmitted in families affected with BPD (Ruocco et al., 2019). We have  explored the familial aggregation of candidate phenotypes for BPD (e.g., anxiousness, cognitive dysregulation; Ruocco et al., 2015). We are currently studying how cognitive control deficits and neuroimaging biomarkers of cognitive control may aggregate in families affected with BPD.

We also pursue secondary lines of research in two areas:

(a) Social Cognition in healthy individuals and adults with different forms of psychiatric illness, with a particular focus on facial emotion perception in diagnoses such as BPD (Daros et al., 2013, 2014) and schizophrenia-spectrum disorders (Daros et al., 2014; Ruocco et al., 2014). We are currently developing a new test to simultaneously measure how accurately people recognize emotions in faces and their subjective perceptions of the intensity of these emotions. We are also studying how perceptions and memories of facial emotional expressions are reconstructed by healthy individuals and people with BPD. Additionally, we have studied brain activation associated with social exclusion in BPD (Ruocco et al., 2010; Wrege et al., in press).

(b) Emotion Regulation in healthy adults and individuals with MDD and BPD, with a main emphasis on cognitive emotion regulation strategies (Daros et al., 2018a, 2018b, in press). In our neuroimaging research, we have investigated the neural correlates of negative emotionality in adults with BPD (Ruocco et al., 2013) and adolescents with BPD traits (Safar et al., 2019).

Learn More about Training Opportunities

We train Master's and Ph.D. students in our Canadian Psychological Association-accredited Clinical Psychology program at the University of Toronto.