PBS Welcomes Adam Grabell

Research Area: Clinical Psychology; Faculty page

What is the focus of your current research?

The question that my research focuses on is: “How does emotion regulation work in early childhood and what are the parts of this system that contribute to the most common forms of emerging psychopathology?” Our lab is interested in how early emotion regulation relates to the trans-diagnostic symptom of irritability (i.e., touchiness, grumpiness, annoyance) in early childhood.  Everyone has some level of irritability, and expressions of irritability are very common in early childhood, but irritability at the severe end is a core symptom of nearly a dozen DSM-5 diagnoses. Understanding the etiology of early clinical irritability may advance mental health care for children falling across a wide swath of diagnoses.

We believe that how children regulate negative affect can help us understand when early irritability is normative and when it is a risk factor for chronic psychopathology.  Between the ages of 3-5 years children are rapidly developing their emotion regulation skills, but we know little about how emotion regulation works at this age. Young children have limited verbal abilities to articulate their emotion regulation strategies, and examining emotion regulation-related brain functioning with most neuroimaging technologies, such as fMRI, isn’t really feasible. Moreover, it is challenging to identify poor emotion regulation that might be signaling mental illness at an age when frequent tantrums and outbursts are considered developmentally normative.  Our lab employs a multimodal approach to study how children respond to emotional challenges like frustration at different levels of analysis. We measure how children’s brains are responding to frustration using a newer neuroimaging technique called functional near-infrared spectroscopy (fNIRS), which uses near-infrared light to measure changes in oxygenated hemoglobin in the outer cortex.  Near-infrared light at a specific frequency is actually able to travel through the scalp, skull, and meninges and penetrate the outer centimeter or so of brain tissue.  We also look at children’s facial expressions while they are frustrated by coding the contraction of each individual muscle in the face. Children self-rate their emotions in-vivo and parents rate the child’s ability to regulate emotion in daily life.  Combined, these simultaneous streams of data occurring at different levels provide a window into the mechanics of emerging emotion regulation in children ranging from low to severe irritability.

What drew you to UMass?

I was so excited when I saw that the clinical area in PBS was hiring!  It’s an amazing department with faculty whose work I have admired for years.  There are so many great scientists here studying children, self-regulation, and psychopathology from different angles, with different tools, and with different questions, and you can see from their grants and publications that they’re all collaborating on these really cool projects.  I wanted to be part of that scene!  My wife and I also loved the idea of coming back to Massachusetts after spending a couple years living outside of Boston.  We’re now closer to family and friends which has been really nice.

What are you looking for in potential graduate students?

I’m looking for enthusiastic and hardworking graduate students who are curious about the developing brain and emerging mental illness.  I’m particularly looking for prospective students who have their own unique research questions they are passionate about.  Students in my lab are expected to not just apprentice in collecting and analyzing data on early childhood irritability, they should be designing their own studies and taking the lead on papers that reflect their point of view. I am also looking for graduate students who see themselves as future clinical scientists.  In other words, individuals who want both exceptional clinical training and research training.  Finally, openness to getting down on the floor and working with preschool kids is a must!  Working with young children can be hilarious, ridiculous, and frustrating all at the same time.  

What are you looking forward to in the next few years at UMass?

The first thing I’m looking forward to is finishing setting up my lab!  As those on the 6th floor likely heard on a daily basis, my lab underwent major construction through the summer and early fall.  Right now we are setting up equipment, painting walls, and ordering furniture.  My undergraduates and lab coordinator are busy training in how to use all of our equipment so we can launch our first major research project: a study examining deliberate emotion regulation and the progression of irritability across early childhood.  Deliberate emotion regulation comprises meta-cognitive effortful regulation strategies that children typically learn in psychotherapy, such as taking deep breaths and reappraising.  To capture this we developed a paradigm that simulates a psychotherapy session and is compatible with fNIRS.  The study is funded by an NIMH K23 grant and we are excited to get it going.  I’m also really looking forward to bringing graduate students into my lab and to starting up new, collaborative projects that interface with other faculty across PBS.