While earning her Ph.D. in clinical psychology, Dylan Gee often encountered children and adolescents battling phobias, panic attacks, and other anxiety disorders. Most overcame them with the help of psychotherapy. But not all of the kids did, and Gee spent many an hour brainstorming about how to help her tougher cases, often to find that nothing worked.
What Gee noticed was that so many of the interventions she pondered were based on studies in adults. Little was actually known about the dramatic changes that a child’s developing brain undergoes and their implications for coping under stress. Gee, currently an assistant professor at the Weill Medical College of Cornell University, New York, NY, decided to dedicate her research career to bridging the gap between basic neuroscience and clinical interventions to treat children and adolescents with persistent anxiety and stress-related disorders.
Gee, a 2015 NIH Director’s Early Independence awardee, is particularly interested in what she calls “safety signals.” Unlike the common approach to fear reduction, in which a child directly confronts a fear to overcome it, safety signals involve linking fears to sensory cues, such as the ringing of a bell, that have been previously presented in a context that provides reassurance. The child is presented with a stressor and a safety signal to condition the mind to activate alternative neurocircuits and relieve fear or anxiety.
Safety signals have been studied primarily in animals, showing, for example, that a stressed mouse can be taught to identify a safety cue to reduce fear. While some safety signal research has been performed in human adults, it has gone largely unexplored in children.
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