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Robin Nusslock

Associate Professor of Psychology

PhD, Clinical Psychology, University of Wisconsin-Madison, 2009

Psychologist Robin Nusslock’s research uses neuroscientific methods to investigate brain systems underlying human thought and emotion, and the involvement of these systems in mental and physical health. In recent years, he has become especially interested in investigating how early life adversity “gets under the skin” to affect signaling between the brain and body (particularly the immune system) in a manner that affects human development and generates risk for disease states across the lifespan.

Nusslock has received a number of honors and awards for his research, including a Rising Star Award from the Association for Psychological Science and a Young Investigator Award from the International Society for Bipolar Disorder. He is a fellow of the Association for Psychological Science. His research has received funding from the National Institutes of Health, the Chauncey and Marion D. McCormick Foundation, and the Ryan Licht Sang Bipolar Foundation. He holds joint appointments in the departments of neurobiology, psychiatry, and medical social sciences.

Current Research

How Stress “Gets Under the Skin.” Considerable evidence indicates that early-life adversity increases risk for emotional and physical health problems across the lifespan. This phenomenon raises an important question for scientists and clinicians alike. How does adversity get under the skin of a developing child to confer vulnerability to a heterogeneous set of mental and physical illnesses? Working with IPR health psychologists Greg Miller and Edith Chen, Nusslock is investigating these questions. He and Miller developed a neuroimmune network (NIN) model that argues that life adversity amplifies crosstalk between peripheral inflammation and brain systems subserving both negative and positive emotions. When dysregulated, this crosstalk results in chronic low-grade inflammation and neuroplastic changes in the brain that elevate risk for illness. Nusslock is currently testing the central tenets of this model across multiple projects examining the relationship between neuroimmune signaling and both mental and physical health.

The Neuroscience of Emotion and Decision Making. Nusslock uses behavioral techniques, neurophysiology, and both structural and functional brain imaging to investigate how the brain generates approach (such as reward) and avoidance (such as threat or fear) emotional states. He is particularly interested in how emotional brain systems modulate our everyday decisions. The Rational Choice Perspective in Economics argues that humans make consistent decisions to maximize preferences. Economists, cognitive scientists, and psychologists have started to refine this perspective by proposing a model of Bounded Rationality, which argues that humans may deviate from rational decision making in predictable ways. Nusslock uses neuroscientific methods to try to model these deviations in rationality. Specifically, he examines whether variation in brain systems involved in processing reward and threat predict the likelihood that someone will make optimal versus suboptimal choices both in the laboratory and in naturalistic settings. 

The Neuroscience of Mental Illness. Nusslock translates his research on the basic mechanics of emotion in the brain to investigate emotional disorders such as depression, anxiety, and mania. This work, funded by the National Institutes of Health, focuses on abnormalities in brain systems involved in processing rewards and threats in the environment. Epidemiological research indicates it can take up to ten years for individuals with a serious psychiatric disorder to receive an accurate diagnosis, which delays treatment and worsens the course of illness. A goal of Nusslock’s research program is to develop “brain stress tests” to facilitate more accurate and timely diagnoses of psychiatric illness. The logic of this vision is similar to a cardiac-stress test for detecting risk for heart disease. In addition to facilitating diagnosis, understanding the biological mechanisms of psychiatric risk can inform our understanding of the causes and consequences of mental illness, provide targets for intervention and prevention programs, and provide metrics to measure the efficacy of social policy programs aimed at maximizing mental health and minimizing mental illness.

Selected Publications

Miller, G., S. White, E. Chen, and R. Nusslock. In press. Inflammatory activity is associated with larger neural responses to threat and reward among children living in poverty. American Journal of Psychiatry.

Nusslock, R., G. Brody, C. Armstrong, A. Carroll, L. Sweet, T. Yu, A. Barton, E. Hallowell, E. Chen, J. Higgins, T. Parrish, L. Wang, and G.  Miller. 2019. Higher peripheral inflammatory signaling associated with lower resting state functional brain connectivity in emotion regulation and central executive networks. Biological Psychiatry 86:153–62.

Brody, G., T. Yu, R. Nusslock, A. Barton, G. Miller, E. Chen, and L. Sweet. 2019. Effect of supportive parenting on the relationship between adolescent poverty and resting state functional brain connectivity during adulthood. Psychological Science 30:1040–49.

Miller, G., E. Chen, C. Armstrong, A. Carroll, S. Ozturk, K. Rydland, G. Brody, T. Parrish, and R. Nusslock. 2018. Functional connectivity in central executive network protects youth against cardiometabolic risks linked with neighborhood violence. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 115:12063–68.

Nusslock, R., and L. Alloy. 2017. Reward processing and mood-related symptoms: An RDoC and translational neuroscience perspective. Journal of Affective Disorders 216:3–16. 

Pornpattananangkul, N., and R. Nusslock. 2016. Willing to wait: Elevated reward-processing EEG activity associated with a greater preference for larger-but-delayed rewards. Neuropsychologia 91:141–62.

Young, C., and R. Nusslock. 2016. Positive mood enhances reward-related neural activity. Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience 11:934–44.

Nusslock, R., and G. Miller. 2016. Early-life adversity and physical and emotional health across the lifespan: A neuroimmune network hypothesis. Biological Psychiatry 80:23–32.

Nusslock, R., J. Almeida, E. Forbes, A. Versace, E. Frank, E. LaBarbara, C. Klein, and M. Phillips. 2012. Waiting to win: Elevated striatal and orbitofrontal cortical activity during reward anticipation in euthymic bipolar disorder adults. Bipolar Disorders 14:249–60.