Vanderbilt Kennedy Center

Neuorcognitive Bases of Coping and Emotion-Regulation

Study Description

The development of the capacity to cope with stress and adversity, including the ability regulate emotions under stress, is central for adaptation to both acute and chronic stress. Emerging evidence points to regions of the prefrontal cortex as central to the development of these skills, with some of the most striking aspects of development in these regions continuing through adolescence. Moreover, coping and emotion-regulation skills are built on more basic cognitive processes encompassed in the domain of executive functions that are also regulated by prefrontal regions. Insults to the prefrontal cortex can occur from a variety of sources and may disrupt development of these regions, resulting in impairment in the development of coping and self-regulatory skills. Two striking sources of such insults can occur during childhood and adolescence and have been the focus of two lines of research in our laboratory—side effects associated with some medical treatments and exposure to chronic stress. This study has been implemented to examine the feasibility and acceptability of a study with complex methodology as well as generate pilot data from a paradigm for examining functioning in the prefrontal cortex, executive functions, and coping/emotion-regulation in two groups of children that reflect acquired disabilities in the development of these processes: (a) survivors of pediatric acute lymphocytic leukemia (ALL) who have received high dose intrathecal chemotherapy for the treatment of their disease, and (b) children who have been exposed to chronic stress of living with a depressed parent. A control group is also being recruited as a comparison group. We hypothesize that (1) childhood survivors of ALL and children of depressed parents will show deficits in working memory and in the use of emotion-regulation and coping skills relative to healthy controls; (2) functional neuroimaging analyses will show that ALL survivors and children of depressed parents, as compared with healthy controls, will have relatively less activation in the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (e.g., Broadman Areas 9, 46) in response to a standard working memory task (the n-back) and in response to instructions to cognitively reappraise an emotionally arousing stimulus. Data generated from this project will provide the basis for a larger project to examine acquired disabilities in the prefrontal cortex and the implications of these disabilities for understanding processes of coping and adaptation.


Funding for this project is provided by a Vanderbilt Kennedy Center Discovery Grant.

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  • Compas, B.E. (2006). Psychobiological processes of stress and coping: Implications for resilience in childhood and adolescence. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, 1094, 226-234.
  • Compas, B.E., Campbell, L.K., Robinson, K.E., & Rodriguez, E. (2009). Coping and memory: Automatic and controlled processes in responses to stress. In J. Quas & R. Fivush (eds.), Emotion and Memory in Development: Biological, Cognitive and Social Considerations. Oxford University Press.