Projects

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

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

In this study we have been following a cohort of 400 children and adult refugees resettling in Southeast Michigan and have established the prevalence of PTSD, anxiety, and depression.

We have also been researching environmental, inflammatory, genetic (the first Middle Eastern cohort in Psychiatric Genetic Consortium), somatic, and family correlates of stress among refugees.

Funded by an NICHD R01 grant, we are currently examining the environmental, biomarker (epigenetic, autonomic: startle response and skin conductance response), and family correlates of illness course among the refugee children and their parents.

Cognitive Context In Fear Conditioning And Extinction Learning

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, how does therapy, by creating a different meaning for such experiences help change the brain? Finally, are there aberrations in conditions such as PTSD or anxiety, that impair such cognitive learning?

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

This model is a step up from animal 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. We have established the neurocircuitry of instructed safety learning in healthy participants. In the next step, 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 patented project uses the cutting-edge Augmented Reality (AR) technology in conjunction with telepsychiatry to bring exposure therapy to real-life contexts.

The purpose is to overcome the geographical barriers for access to trained therapists, provide therapists with a variety of feared objects and situations at their command, to use for exposure therapy, and help contextualization of safety learning in as many real-life environments as possible.


The patient’s AR headset wirelessly connects to the therapist’s computer where the therapist can see a 3D map of the patient’s environment. From a drop-down menu the therapist can choose the type (spider, dog, snake or different types), color, size, and behavior of the virtual objects for exposure therapy. Our clinical trial showed impressive results, where all patients treated for fear of spiders, were able to touch a real live tarantula, or the tank containing it in less than one hour during one session treatment.

Currently we are also developing AR human encounter scenarios for treatment of PTSD, and helping first responders with work-related trauma.

Watch the application demo to see more.

Targeting Trauma-Related Disorders with Arts and Movement Therapies

1 in 5 youth experience trauma, and 70-90% of adults experience trauma over the life course. In the aftermath of trauma, individuals may experience PTSD, anxiety, depression, and somatic symptoms as well as require stress coping skills and ways to build resilience. This research program brings creative arts and movement-based interventions to school-aged youth as well as families resettled as refugees of the Middle East and Africa.

In collaboration with Samaritas Resettlement Agency, Oakland Schools, Hype Recreation Center, ACCESS, and the Arab American National Museum, we have brought kinesthetically informed art therapy, dance/movement therapy, and trauma-informed yoga to our communities throughout Southeast Michigan. Through the COVID-19 pandemic, we have shifted programming online and expanded our reach through schools.

Funded by the Detroit Medical Center and Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan, we have also been able to research the efficacy and underlying neurobiological mechanisms of these interventions to advocate for greater usage of these creative arts and movement-based interventions in the community.

If you like what you see and would like to help us continue our work, you can make donations here!