Symptom perception and emotional memory
Our first line of research consists of experimental studies aimed at isolating psychological mechanisms or processes that are involved in the maintenance or cause of psychiatric disorders and health psychology. It has been focused on symptom perception, sex research, and emotional memory, including recently fMRI neuroimaging techniques.
In experimental as well as field studies, the symptom perception model is applied to medically unexplained complaints associated with various illnesses and symptoms, e.g. somatization, cardiovascular disease, asthma (Kolk, Rietveld).
A new subdomain of research in symptom perception investigates individual differences and the effects of culture and gender. As to psychophysiology of the sexual response we study motor preparation as a useful window on the subjectively experienced emotion and on the physiological observable aspects of sexual desire and behavior. In addition, gender differences in the sensitivity to sexual stimuli are investigated by using psycho-physiological as well as fMRI research methods.
Aetiology and maintenance of emotional disorders from a learning theory perspective
Future experimental research will be directed at the aetiology and maintenance of emotional disorders from a learning theory perspective. There is converging evidence that the psychological nucleus of emotional disorders is a learned association between a (previously neutral) stimulus (CS) and an aversive stimulus (US). Although behavior and cognitive theories have led to the development of effective treatment for emotional disorders, relapses are common and there is room for improvement.
Moreover, little is known about the mechanisms of sustained behavior change. A common assumption of both approaches is that just like an association can be learned, the association can also be dissolved. However, several asymmetries have been discovered between learning and extinction of emotional responses, suggesting that this assumption is fundamentally wrong.
A new line of research (Kindt) will be developed aimed at delineating the psychological mechanisms of behavior change in emotional disorders. That is, mechanisms of emotional behavior change will be investigated in experimental designs focused directly on factors influencing extinction and learning of new associations.
Our second major line of research consists of experimental studies aimed at reducing psychopathology across the life span, by specific and well-controlled psychological (or pharmacological) interventions. Emmelkamp, Kamphuis and Prins will continue to conduct studies into evidence-based psychotherapy.
Currently, our group is conducting therapy-outcome studies on adults with work-related distress, substance abuse disorders, personality disorders, depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, panic disorder, agoraphobia, and obsessive compulsive disorder; on children and adolescents with ADHD, conduct disorder and anxiety disorders; and on the elderly with anxiety disorders.
We are not only interested in the differential outcome of treatments, but we also focus on its mediating and moderating factors, a hitherto neglected area in psychotherapy research studies.
With regard to child psychopathology, the focus is on externalizing disorders. The development of theory-driven parent and child interventions that more effectively impact the primary symptoms of ADHD is given central attention.
Further, we are currently involved in a longitudinal study on the etiology and development of ADHD-symptoms in young children. As the number of children referred for diagnosis and treatment of ADHD is sharply rising, more knowledge on risk factors that influence the developmental course, i.e. persistence of excessive hyperactive and impulsive behaviors, is needed. Efficacy of early interventions may increase if we are able to identify detrimental factors in the family environment. The final product will be a low-threshold preventive intervention targeting identified risk factors within child and family.
Technological Innovations in psychotherapy
Further, we will continue our research into technological innovations in psychotherapy. Our group is at the forefront of research into the use of information technology in clinical psychology. Apart from our involvement into the evaluation of psychotherapy through the Internet, a major contribution in this domain consists of the development and evaluation of controlled clinical trials on virtual reality (VR) exposure therapy for phobic disorders (Emmelkamp).
Research into Virtual Reality Exposure to date has been limited to specific phobias (claustrophobia, acrophobia, and fear of flying), but we intend to develop virtual worlds for social phobia and agoraphobia as well (in collaboration with Delft Technological University).
Further, we intend to integrate these two lines of research and plan to investigate the feasibility and effectiveness of treating housebound agoraphobic patients at home through Virtual Reality Exposure by using the Internet (Emmelkamp & Lange).
Forensic applications of clinical psychology
A final research theme is on forensic applications of clinical psychology (Emmelkamp and Kamphuis) including the psychological study of stalking, development of standardized assessment technology, and development of best-evidence practice guidelines. These studies include the search for more sophisticated assessment instruments that are based on recent social-cognitive performance tasks tapping critical preconscious associations in specific offender groups.