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The psychology of health

Concordia’s psychology researchers examine issues with the goal of improving individuals’ mental well-being
February 7, 2019
By Simona Rabinovitch

Concordia’s Department of Psychology is an epicentre for critical health research. Its professors examine issues such as poverty’s impact on mental health, how bilingualism may ward off dementia and why some young people are more resilient than others against alcohol or drug abuse.

Virginia Penhune, chair and professor of psychology, reports the department produces the largest volume of health research in the university. It’s also one of Concordia’s largest departments, counting more than 1,400 undergraduate and 130 graduate students. Its research productivity is the result of an ongoing exchange with the community at large. “Not only does the department take information and research to the community — the community brings us new ideas and directions in research,” Penhune says.

The psychology of health

Much of this work takes place within the department’s 40 labs, three research centres and interdisciplinary facilities like Concordia’s PERFORM Centre, which focuses on prevention and improved long-term health through clinical research, education and public programs.

Uniting researchers across disciplines is a faculty hallmark, says André Roy, dean of Concordia’s Faculty of Arts and Science. “We have an outstanding Department of Psychology that distinguishes itself in many different ways and covers a broad range of activities in both research and teaching, from neuroscience to clinical application,” he says.

These six researchers are among those leading the way.

Lisa Serbin

Professor, Honorary Concordia Research Chair in Human Development, Member of the Centre for Research in Human Development

Lisa Serbin Professor Lisa Serbin is co-director of the Concordia Longitudinal Risk Project, the department’s longest running study, launched in 1976.

Lisa Serbin is co-director of the Concordia Longitudinal Risk Project — the Department of Psychology’s longest-running study. It has followed more than 4,000 Quebec families from low-income neighbourhoods for more than 40 years. Serbin, who joined the project in 1981, and her co-director Dale Stack are collecting and analyzing information about four generations of these families, amounting to more than 10,000 people.

With four decades’ worth of valuable data, Serbin and her colleagues have used the cohort for an array of healthrelated research, including the impact of poverty on health, links between childhood behaviour and later use of health care, and how positive parenting — offering children encouraging, non-punitive guidance — contributes to reducing health risks associated with poverty.

Serbin’s 2011 study published in the International Journal of Behavioral Development showed growing up poor increases one’s likelihood of raising his or her own children in poverty. She’s now investigating how that cycle can be broken. She explores intergenerational transfer — how parents’ education, parenting and mental, physical and environmental health affect their children over the long term.

“We can look across generations and over time and see which factors protect the youngest generation, who may currently be living in environments with high health risk,” says Serbin. “What can improve kids’ chances of a better outcome than that oftheir parents? It comes down to important things like education and parenting.”

Serbin found that involvement, structure and support from parents might reduce some effects of growing up in poverty, and were shown to reduce medical emergencies, injuries, infections and respiratory illnesses during early childhood.

“Our projects are highly collaborative across areas, departments and institutions,” says Serbin. For example, she and Stack are collaborating with colleagues from Concordia and McGill on a project led by Lisa Kakinami, assistant professor in the Department of Mathematics and Statistics, in association with Concordia’s PERFORM Centre.

Using data from the Concordia Longitudinal Risk Project, their research looks at how a neighbourhood’s built environment — walkability, access to playgrounds and parks, proximity to fast-food restaurants and grocery stores — impacts health, including cardiovascular and obesity risks, over time, from childhood through adulthood.

Natalie Phillips

Professor, Member of Concordia’s Centre for Research on Aging (EngAGE), Bilingualism Interest Group and Centre for Research in Human Development

Natalie Phillips Natalie Phillips, professor in the Department of Psychology, is a team leader in the National Canadian Consortium on Neurodegeneration in Aging.

Speaking more than one language may help protect the brain against neurodegenerative disease, according to Natalie Phillips, who leads Concordia’s Cognition, Aging and Psychophysiology (CAP) Lab.

“In the brains of Alzheimer’s patients who were multilingual, we saw evidence suggesting that they were more resilient against the disease,” says Phillips, whose research was published in the journal Neuropsychologia in 2018.

“Many lifestyle factors contribute to cognitive reserve — or resilience against disease — such as being educated, socially engaged, physically active and having a stimulating occupation or rich social networks,” she adds. “We think speaking more than one language is one of those enriching lifestyle factors.”

As a team leader in the Canadian Consortium on Neurodegeneration in Aging, a national initiative aimed at tackling the growing incidence of dementia and related diseases, Phillips and her team are exploring in another study the relationship between hearing and vision loss and cognitive decline in older patients with dementia.

Her research examines the cognitive and sensory functions of 1,650 patients either with, or at risk of getting, a neurodegenerative disease such as Alzheimer’s. Data from brain imaging, genetics, visual acuity and hearing ability sheds light on possible links between the senses, cognitive function and long-term cognitive health.

“In persons with Alzheimer’s disease who have hearing loss, we’re seeing more brain changes than those in patients not experiencing any sensory loss, particularly in a region called the hippocampus, which is important for learning and memory,” she says. “And in patients at risk for dementia, we see that hearing loss is associated with more white matter in the temporal lobes.”

While these findings are preliminary, “this may be evidence for compensation through greater brain connectivity in individuals who have a sensory loss compared to those who don’t,” Phillips says.

Shimon Amir

Professor, Director of Concordia’s Center for Studies in Behavioral Neurobiology, Distinguished University Research Professor

Shimon Amir Shimon Amir, professor of psychology, was awarded the title of Distinguished University Research Professor, the university’s highest form of recognition for overall research achievements, in 2018.

Shimon Amir studies circadian rhythms. His research explores the function and regulation of circadian clocks in regions of the brain responsible for motivation, emotion, addiction and motor control — to understand how disruption of these clocks leads to disease.

“Most organisms have clock genes in every cell of the body. All these clocks are synchronized through a master clock that sits in the brain and receives light information from the eyes. That’s how the body’s clock is synchronized with day and night,” he explains. “It’s a 24-hour clock made up of several genes that interact to generate this cycle.”

Right now, Amir is focusing on the role of clock genes in three different areas: depression and anxiety-like behaviours, alcohol use disorders, and circadian and motor dysfunction in Parkinson’s and other neurodegenerative diseases.

“In Parkinson’s, one of the dysfunctions is disruption of circadian rhythms,” he says. “Patients have problems with sleep, wake up at night and fall asleep during the day. We study the role clock genes in the striatum — a part of the brain which is the focal point for Parkinson’s — play in motor and circadian abnormalities associated with the disease.”

Amir and his team at the Center for Studies in Behavioral Neurobiology work with mice, using genetic techniques to knock out specific genes. Most such genetic studies remove the gene from the entire organism. However, Amir removes them selectively from the striatum only. “We take out the clock genes from the striatum while the clocks elsewhere in the brain and body remain intact,” he says. “This approach allows us to study the role of clock genes in the striatum in the control of those behaviours that I described.”

Ultimately a greater understanding of how circadian genes influence behaviours could lead to more appropriate behavioural and pharmacological approaches in treating diseases.

Roisin O’Connor

Associate Professor, Member, Centre for Clinical Research in Health

Roisin O’Connor Roisin O’Connor, associate professor in the Department of Psychology, is studying social anxiety in young adults and risk for problem alcohol use.

Roisin O’Connor wants to understand what protects some young people from excessive drinking or substance abuse.

“We know that young people who drink to cope tend to be at greater risk for having problems with alcohol later on,” says

O’Connor, who is researching social anxiety in young adults as a predictor of alcohol use disorders. “What brings someone from having a few drinks to drinking heavily over the course of a night?” O’Connor used smartphones to collect data from students at a party. “By taking a magnifying glass to a single event, I wanted to understand what happens when someone goes from a breath alcohol concentration of zero to a light intoxication level [0.04 grams of alcohol per 100 millilitres of blood],” she says.

“At a light level of intoxication, socially anxious people activated very different beliefs about alcohol. For example, ‘Alcohol will help me cope’ — compared to others who are not socially anxious,” she reports. “Our research suggests that for people who are socially anxious, the risk to consume more alcohol is happening in the moment. This is about risk within the event, and understanding how risk for alcohol use disorders unfolds.”

While the study is ongoing, O’Connor says she expects to see that “when people high on social anxiety begin drinking, there will be a steep decrease in their anxiety that predicts heavy drinking that night. We also expect that this influences broader risk for developing an alcohol use disorder.” She hopes to follow the participants until their late 20s to understand how this might impact their relationships and careers.

On another project, O’Connor works with an Indigenous community in Quebec to explore what helps young people to succeed academically and socially. Her research involves identifying an appropriate model of resilience against alcohol and drug abuse that’s specific to an individual’s community. She is also working to develop intervention processes tailored to its needs. “Preliminary data suggests that young people who strongly connect with their culture are less at risk for trying alcohol,” she says.

Aaron Johnson

Associate Professor, Member of Concordia’s EngAGE and the Centre for Interdisciplinary Research in Rehabilitation of Greater Montreal

Aaron Johnson Aaron Johnson, Associate Professor in the Department of Psychology, studies vision loss in older adults.

At the Concordia Vision Lab, Aaron Johnson studies the benefits of Apple iPad technology as a reading rehabilitation device for older adults suffering from vision loss. His research has shown the iPad is as useful at improving reading as more traditional devices, such as magnifiers or optical devices.

“One of the problems with traditional technology is that it highlights an individual’s vision loss, which some people don’t like because it makes them feel different or draws attention to them,” he says. “The nice thing about the iPad is that anyone can pull it out. It won’t be different from the rest of the population.”

Johnson is working on a new longterm project that examines the link between vision loss, cognitive decline and balance. He’s collaborating with Department of Psychology colleagues Natalie Phillips and Karen Li, a professor who studies balance in older adults, postdoctoral research fellow Caitlin Murphy, GrDip 08, MSc 10, and colleagues from the School of Optometry at Université de Montréal.

“We’re bringing individuals in and running a very detailed eye scan,” Johnson says. “In those same people, we’re also getting additional information from tests of their cognition and balance. We can then start seeing if there is some connection between these areas.”

Johnson notes that in comparison to normally sighted people, those with macular degeneration, which is a major cause of vision loss in Canada, are twice as likely to develop Alzheimer’s disease and dementia, and four times as likely to fall. He hopes to discover whether a quick eye scan can help predict cognitive and balance decline in older adults.

Diane Poulin-Dubois

Professor, Director of Concordia’s Cognitive and Language Development Laboratory, Research Chair in Developmental Cybernetics, and Member of the Centre for Research in Human Development

Diane Poulin-Dubois As director of Concordia’s Cognitive and Language Development Laboratory, Diane Poulin-Dubois studies early cognitive and language development.

Diane Poulin-Dubois studies early cognitive and language development. In two recent publications in Developmental Psychology, Poulin- Dubois and colleagues in San Diego, Calif., Mexico City and Geneva, Switzerland, followed a group of monolingual and bilingual children from 2012 to 2017.

The researchers developed a computerized test that measures early word comprehension — and observed that vocabulary size at 22 months predicted language skills at 36 months, as well as the score on a popular school-readiness screening test called the Lollipop test, administered at 48 months.

These results offer the possibility of early diagnosis of language delay in babies. “In the United States and Canada, 40 to 50 per cent of children aged seven to 14 who are referred to psychological services have undiagnosed language problems,” says Poulin- Dubois, also a member of Concordia’s Bilingualism Interest Group. “We know that children with language problems are more likely to have difficulties in school and less likely to graduate and find employment. That’s the chain reaction.”

Their project received US$2.2 million in funding from the U.S. National Institute of Child Health and Human Development.

Another line of Poulin-Dubois’s research, funded by the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada and the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada, involves how understanding and measuring emotional processing in babies can help researchers trying to diagnose early signs of autism spectrum disorder (ASD).

For example, she’s examining whether her lab tests can be used to help researchers design tests for early risk of ASD. “The answer is yes,” she says, explaining that studies in her lab have shown a link between performance in these behavioural tests at the age of 18 months and the same children’s results on a standard autism test, the Modified Checklist for Autism in Toddlers (M-CHAT). When followed for many years, she reports, kids who score poorly on the M-CHAT have more risk of being later diagnosed with ASD.

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