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Connected Lives - Overcoming the Self through Empathy (CLOSE): A Dyadic, Multi-Method Study

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PROJECT SUMMARY This project seeks to shed light on mechanisms underlying transdiagnostic risk for mental illness by integrating two traditionally disparate lines of research. One line of work indicates that repetitive negative thinking (RNT)?a transdiagnostic risk factor characterized by frequent, negative, self-focused thoughts? increases vulnerability for a range of mental health disorders, including depression and anxiety. A second line of work demonstrates that high-quality social relationships are associated with lower rates of mental and physical illness; conversely, relationship stress, hostility, and disconnection exacerbate loneliness, isolation, and mental and physical illness. This proposal will test a new model in which RNT and social connectedness work together as parts of an integrated whole. The central argument of this model is that RNT exerts its pernicious effects on mental health by impairing the ability to meaningfully connect with others through empathy?a critical component of social connection that involves sharing and understanding others? emotions. Critical to this model is the hypothesis that RNT and empathy operate dyadically; that is, they affect both partners in a close relationship. To test this model, this project will implement a multilevel research design that integrates self-report, neuroimaging, and naturalistic observation to study RNT, social connection, and mental health in the context of established close relationships. Specifically, the project will employ a multi-method approach across 200 established romantic couples (young adults to those in middle age; N = 400) to assess the following aims: (1) Examine associations between RNT and partner-directed neural and behavioral empathy among romantic couples; (2) Determine the role of neural empathy in dyadic social-emotional and mental health outcomes; (3) Determine the role of RNT in dyadic mental health outcomes; and (4) Examine whether neural empathy mediates the dyadic association between RNT and longitudinal mental health outcomes. Advancing prior work, the proposed research will examine neural empathy in a novel and validated social feedback task using functional MRI in each member of the couple, to be modelled using dyadic statistics. Additionally, RNT and daily social behaviors will be assessed in everyday life using two mobile apps developed by the research team: Mind Window and the Electronically Activated Recorder (EAR). Finally, mental health will be assessed over 6 months to allow for prospective changes in the primary outcomes of interest. To tackle the study?s aims, this proposal brings together an interdisciplinary team of researchers with expertise spanning all facets of the proposed research: RNT, depression, neural empathy, social connectedness, dyadic modelling, and ambulatory assessment. Ultimately, this work holds promise for advancing scientific understanding of how individual and social risks for psychopathology operate together to shape emotional disorders. In turn, this research has the potential to help identify novel intervention targets to strengthen social connectedness in service of improving mental health.
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