Stress Risk and Resilience in Syrian and Iraqi Refugees and Survivors of Torture

The Syria Civil War has exposed millions of civilians to extreme physical and emotional trauma. However, little is known about the mental health impact on refugee children.

This is a study of the interaction between trauma, neurobiology, and culture. In this project, we measure stress and vulnerability biomarkers in Iraqi and Syrian refugees who are resettled in the US.

We aim to find the prevalence of posttraumatic stress disorder, anxiety, and depression, and other impacts of trauma. We also assess chronic level of stress during the few months prior to arrival to the United States, through measurement of hair cortisol. This will be an indicator of level of exposure to stress during the stressful states of migration. We also do genetic study of vulnerability and resilience factors to the effects of trauma in this unique cultural and ethnic group. We also will look at epigenetic aspects of the trauma within the family structure. We will also look into inflammation markers to probe potential role of inflammation in the effects of trauma.

So far, we have collected data on more than 400 children and adults in this project.

Cognitive Context In Fear Conditioning And Extinction Learning

This study is in line with one of the questions in our lab: How does personal interpretation and understanding of a traumatic experience (cognitive context of trauma), affect the way people are differently traumatized by an event. Also to explore combined effects of cognitive and exposure components of therapy of anxiety disorders and PTSD.

In this fear conditioning fMRI study, we examine the neurocircuitry underlying learning of fear and safety as an effect of instruction and experience.

This examination will help fill in gaps between laboratory models of trauma and exposure therapy (which are mainly based on experiential learning of safety and fear), and the reality of trauma in humans and therapy where there is always a cognitive contextual component present. This can also help in examining possible aberrances in learning of fear and safety as a result of combination of experience and information. We will look at how instructed and experiential learning of fear and safety may be different across healthy participants, and people with generalized anxiety disorder, and PTSD.

Bringing Exposure Therapy to Real Life Context with Augmented Reality and Telepsychiatry

This project will use the novel technology of Augmented Reality (AR) in conjunction with telepsychiatry as an innovative method of exposure therapy.

The purpose is to overcome the geographical barriers for access to trained therapists, bringing the patient and the therapist to the real world environment of the patient, and help in contextualization of safety learning in as many real life environments as possible.

While in a real-life environment (e.g. their own house), patient wears the AR device and connects with the therapist via wireless telepsychiatry platform. The clinician sees the patient's environment on their computer monitor, and will position the feared AR objects in that environment to create an augmented exposure scenario. With rapid advances in AR technology, this work could significantly improve treatment efficacy for anxiety disorders and PTSD, as well as substance use disorders. Patent is pending for this method, and we are working on developing a proof of concept prototype.

Watch the application demo to see more.

Improving emotional well-being by way of non-pharmacological therapies

In collaboration with Dr. Holly Feen-Calligan from the College of Education, Jenna Spinei, Samaritas, and Hype Recreation Center, our team has developed a family intervention program.

We provide and assess four alternative therapies for stress, trauma, anxiety, and depression in refugees.

Children are enrolled in either dance/movement therapy (DMT) or art therapy, while their parents partake in mindful yoga (women) or high intensity interval training (HIIT; men). These classes are aimed at providing a life-long coping skill, means of non-verbal emotional expression, somatic engagement, and social support to refugees who have resettled in the Southeastern Michigan area. Thus far, we have shown feasibility and acceptance of the program by the population, and we have observed significant decreases in symptoms of PTSD and anxiety in children; anxiety and depression in adults.

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