Dr. Tor D. Wager
Department of Psychology & Neuroscience
University of Colorado at Boulder
The mission of our lab is to investigate the brain pathways that underlie the generation and regulation of pain and emotion. One line of work concerns how cognitive and motivational factors influence the way in which painful stimuli and other aversive events are processed in the brain and body. Two other, related lines of work involve developing biomarkers for pain and emotion, and studying the roles of conceptual knowledge and learning in pain perception and avoidance behavior. A fourth line of work investigates the cortical-subcortical circuits involved in social evaluative threat. The common thread linking these lines of research is the study of relationships between brain processes, affective responses, and physiology using interventions and outcomes relevant for emotional health.
Recent and ongoing studies combine measurements of emotional behavior and self-report, brain activity (measured with fMRI, or, less frequently, PET or EEG), and peripheral physiology, including measures of autonomic and endocrine activity. Our lab has a particular emphasis on developing and using new analysis methods to gain a clearer picture systems-level interactions among of brain regions. Techniques that we have developed and employed include multilevel mediation, multivariate brain connectivity approaches, statistical learning based approaches to predicting outcomes from brain activity.
A specific approach that we are particularly excited about is the use of statistical learning (i.e., machine learning) to develop fMRI-based biomarkers for clinically relevant outcomes (e.g., pain) and subsequently test how psychological factors influence these biomarkers. In the area of pain, this approach could a) establish that a particular pattern of brain activity is diagnostic of physical pain, b) test whether the biomarker is specific to physical pain and/or particular types of pain, and c) test whether psychological manipulations such as placebo treatments and other clinical interventions influence the biomarker. Developing such biomarkers could thus advance pain research by providing objective, physiological correlates of pain in those who are unable to provide subjective reports, and could advance research in psychology by providing tests of psychological influences on the physical representation of pain at multiple levels of the neuraxis.
Our lab is also engaged in collaborative, translational research incorporating brain systems-level analyses into the study of clinical disorders, including PTSD, depression, schizophrenia, and chronic pain.