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OHSU researcher uncovering effects of stress, trauma on brain development and mental health

Kristen L. Mackiewicz Seghete, Ph.D., hopes neurobiological research can lead to improved, expanded treatments, interventions for at-risk women
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Kristen L. Mackiewicz Seghete, Ph.D., PMH-C is the lead principal investigator of OHSU’s SCAN Lab, a research group aiming to better understand how trauma affects the brain and women’s mental health. (OHSU/Christine Torres Hicks)
Kristen L. Mackiewicz Seghete, Ph.D., PMH-C is the lead principal investigator of OHSU’s SCAN Lab, a research group aiming to better understand how trauma affects the brain and women’s mental health. (OHSU/Christine Torres Hicks)

Stress and trauma in childhood and adolescence can have a lasting impact on the brain, including affecting an individual’s decision-making abilities and emotion regulation. Researchers at Oregon Health & Science University are working to understand these neurobiological risk factors, and use their findings to develop and implement interventions that could help prevent long-term mental health impacts.

At the forefront of these efforts is Kristen L. Mackiewicz Seghete, Ph.D., associate professor of psychiatry and obstetrics and gynecology in the OHSU School of Medicine, who serves as lead principal investigator of the SCAN Lab, which stands for Stress, Cognition, Affect and Neuroimaging. The SCAN Lab aims to better understand how cognitive and emotional brain processes are affected in individuals who have experienced stressful events, such as physical, emotional and sexual abuse or neglect.

With an emphasis on early life trauma, neurodevelopment and women’s mental health, the lab takes a translational approach, meaning it bridges basic science with psychotherapeutic interventions that can be shared and applied across the continuum of health care. The ultimate goal of the lab’s work is to use basic neuroscience to identify core processes in the brain that can be targeted in preventive interventions for individuals at heighted risk of mental health challenges.

The neurological changes that can result from stress and trauma in childhood and adolescence increase an individual’s risk for developing clinical disorders such as depression, anxiety and PTSD, affecting their ability to be engaged in school, work, social situations or other areas of daily life.

“One of the ways trauma affects the brain is that it changes how people process really stressful information,” Seghete says. “It kind of hijacks the brain. When that happens, it shuts down all the other parts of your brain that are involved with higher-level thinking, like making decisions or paying attention to details. This process can make people feel like they’re in survival mode.”

Seghete and her team understand this process through neuroimaging, a method that leverages MRI technology to capture neurological structure and function. Seghete calls it “a window in to the brain,” allowing them to see when the brain activates and how the different parts are working together.

“We look at what areas of the brain are activated and how much they’re activated,” Seghete explains.
“We can use the images captured to compare individuals with certain experiences and clinical diagnoses against those without such indicators. This helps us understand how brains react differently to certain information.”

Seghete’s work also focuses on finding ways to better support individuals with increased risk through periods of vulnerability, such as the perinatal period, or the weeks just before and after birth, where there is a heightened risk for developing depressive symptoms. The lab is currently using neuroimaging to examine how preventative interventions can promote well-being, improve emotion regulation, and enhance self-awareness during pregnancy and postpartum.

“Translational research — moving basic science to clinical intervention — is my passion in all of this,” Seghete says. “We often overlook preventative interventions in mental health work, but transitional times are often where they are most helpful.”

Current studies at the SCAN Lab are focused on pregnant people with substance use disorders and better understanding the cognitive and emotional processes that affect infant-parent interactions, as well as how early intervention can support this population.

Looking forward, Seghete and her colleagues’ priority is spreading awareness about the value of preventative interventions and expanding implementation within OHSU’s relevant points of care, such as family medicine, midwifery and obstetrics and gynecology.

Seghete says she hopes this work can continue to be shared within OHSU to support the mental health of at-risk patients: “This work is critical to moving mental health forward.”

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