UR Psychology Professor Kelly Lambert Awarded $435K NIH Grant for Research on Behavior Therapy and Emotional Resilience

May 21, 2019

Kelly Lambert Kelly Lambert, a professor of behavioral neuroscience in the University of Richmond Department of Psychology, has received a more than $435,000 Academic Research Enhancement Award from the National Institutes of Health for her research on using behavior therapy to treat psychiatric illness. 

Lambert’s project, “Deconstructing Depressogenic Susceptibility and Emotional Resilience in Rats,” will assess behavioral therapeutic approaches as possible treatments to certain psychiatric illness such as Major Depressive Disorder (MDD). Lambert’s team will use a rat behavioral model focusing on effort-based rewards, which create neural associations between physical activity and success.

“The rats, which have similar brain areas to humans, are a wonderful model to use as we try to understand more about the complexity of the human brain,” said Lambert. “For example, when our rodent models dig for desired Froot Loops cereal treats, we can examine the neurobiological building blocks of mastering complex behavior and its impact on other uncertainty tasks. Our research suggests that stress levels decrease as we gain a sense of control over our environment.”

Lamberts says her research team will study the rats’ transitions from emotional vulnerability to emotional resilience in order to evaluate the potential effectiveness of behavioral and cognitive therapies for MDD and other disorders. She calls this type of therapy “behaviorceuticals,” a terms she coined as a play on pharmaceuticals, a traditional medical approach.

“I wanted to elevate the value and recognition of behavior by calling it ‘behaviorceuticals,’ and rightly so because our behavior really does change our neurochemistry,” Lambert explained. “As we hug a child, our oxytocin chemicals increase. As we anticipate a fun trip coming up, our dopamine levels are increasing. As we learn more about how these behaviors change those neurochemicals, we can use behavior to moderate them, maybe in addition to pharmaceutical approaches. There's no side effects and it's cheaper.”

Funding from this two-year grant will support a full-time postbaccalaureate position, summer undergraduate research for two students, equipment, and travel.

Lambert will be collaborating with Amelia Eisch, a neuroscientist at Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania, and Lorenz Neuwirth, a biopsychology professor at SUNY-Old Westbury. Lambert’s colleague Andrew Bell, a neuroscientist who works in UR’s Teaching and Learning Center, will also assist with this project and facilitate data visualization and analysis workshops for the student researchers.

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