Our lab is trying to better understand the etiology and treatment of psychopathology and related health problems. In particular, we seek to understand the mechanisms underlying the associations between specific risk and protective factors and subsequent outcomes.
We are interested in numerous risk factors across development and at multiple levels of analysis. For example, we are currently exploring the following risk factors (these are just a couple of examples):
- Pregnancy-related risks, including stress, smoking, and infection during pregnancy;
- Medication use, including maternal prescription during use during pregnancy and ADHD medication use across the lifespan;
- Parental psychopathology, including schizophrenia, depression, suicidal behavior, and substance use problems;
- Neighborhood characteristics, including neighborhood deprivation, number of teenage mothers, and exposure to suicidal behavior in the area.
We are interested in the following outcomes across a number of domains (again, these are just a couple of examples):
- Pregnancy-related problems, such as low birth weight and preterm birth, as well as infant mortality;
- Childhood neuropsychiatric problems, including autism, ADHD, and epilepsy;
- Psychiatric problems (e.g., conduct problems, substance use problems, depression, and anxiety) and criminality during adolescence and young adulthood;
- Suicidal behavior, including suicides and suicide attempts;
- Severe mental illness in adults, including schizophrenia and bipolar disorder;
- Life course variables, such as age at first sex, academic achievement, highest level of education.
Because researchers will only be able to identify causal risk factors by using multiple perspectives we are currently utilizing three approaches to study the processes that underlie the association between these risk factors and measures of offspring well-being: (1) quasi-experimental designs, (2) longitudinal analyses, and (3) intervention studies.
We use several advanced designs that rigorously test alternative hypotheses when we examine how specific environmental risk and protective factors influence the outcomes. These approaches provide a more rigorous test of causality than traditional family and epidemiologic studies that compare unrelated individuals because the designs account for unmeasured genetic and environmental confounds associated with the “putative” risk and protective factors. In particular, we use within-individual comparisons (e.g., we examine the risks of ADHD medication use when the same individual is on and off medication), sibling-comparisons (e.g., we compare siblings who are differentially exposed to maternal smoking during pregnancy), cousin-comparisons (e.g., we study cousins who are differentially exposed to parental suicide), and offspring of twins (e.g., we study the offspring of identical twins who differed in their age at first childbearing).
Longitudinal analyses constitute the second major research program that we are using to study causal mechanisms. One of the main limitations of cross-sectional research is the inability to account for reciprocal influences. We, therefore, analyze longitudinal studies to examine the development of children’s adjustment over time and how environmental factors influence and are influenced by individuals. Longitudinal analyses also provide the opportunity to whether there are sensitive periods of development.
Our third major research approach is the use of intervention studies. We are primarily focused on intervention studies for couples going through divorce/separation. We are currently conducting a randomized controlled study in a family court in Marion County (Indianapolis) and in a mediation center (in Washington, DC). These studies specifically examine whether court interventions or different types of mediation help the parents and their children. Plus, the ability to randomly assign couples to different conditions also provides a powerful approach to the study of causal processes, specifically related to family constructs. Please note this research is conducted in collaboration with Dr. Amy Holtzworth-Munroe.
In summary, our research program enables us to study risk and protective factors through multiple approaches, each with its own strengths and weaknesses. As indicated by the range of questions addressed in these studies, we enjoy considering research issues from multiple angles and integrating theory from different fields, such as clinical psychology, developmental psychology, epidemiology, sociology, public health, behavior genetics, and medicine.