Psychologist Earns Young Investigator Honor
ByAssistant Professor of Psychology Alexa Veenema has earned a prestigious Young Investigator Award from the National Alliance for Research on Schizophrenia and Depression (NARSAD) for her research on how the brain regulates juvenile social behaviors.
Veenema was one of 214 researchers from around the world chosen to receive this year’s Young Investigator Award grants, which are catalysts for additional funding, providing researchers with “proof of concept” for their work, according to NARSAD. Receiving up to $60,000 over two years, Young Investigators pursue brain and behavior research related to schizophrenia, depression, bipolar disorder, autism, ADHD and anxiety disorders such as OCD and PTSD.
“This is a great honor,” said Veenema, who joined the Boston College faculty last fall. “The Young Investigator Award represents my first external funding at BC, and is a very important symbol of recognition of my research. The award can often lead to funding from, for example, the National Institutes of Health or the National Science Foundation.”
Veenema’s research focuses on the role that the neural peptides vasopressin and oxytocin play in modulating or influencing social behavior. Specifically, Veenema uses rats — who share certain behavioral and developmental characteristics with humans, she notes — to examine how the peptides affect “play-fighting,” which she says is an important facet of child development.
“Play-fighting is a prominent behavior in young children and rats,” Veenema explains. “Although really more play than fighting, it is essential to learning social skills and cues. We know that difficulty in emotional and social functioning at an early age can result in greater risk of developing mood and aggressive disorders.
“What we don’t know is the manner in which vasopressin and oxytocin affect certain behaviors in play-fighting situations — such as when a child responds negatively to the play-fighting, or doesn’t engage in it — and what the relationship to possible neural disorders might be.”
Veenema also is studying whether there is a sex-based component to the role of vasopressin and oxytocin. “Autism is more dominant in boys than girls,” she says. “So one question that arises is, is the way neural peptides regulate social behaviors dependent on the sex of the child?”
At a time of increasing concern over bullying and other negative behavior among children, Veenema says understanding the dynamics of childhood interaction, including play-fighting, is more important than ever.
“Nowadays, adults are putting more emphasis on closely monitoring children’s behavior, and correcting it as deemed necessary,” says Veenema, whose research has been published in Frontiers in Neuroendocrinology and Psychoneuroendocrinology. “But children also need a certain amount of space and opportunity to learn social skills without adult intervention. The more we can learn about how the child’s brain functions in social situations, the better we can address problems that arise with over-aggressive behavior, or isolation from peers.”