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Text Box: My research employs behavioral, eye-tracking, and neuroimaging methodologies to examine the normal aging process from cognitive, affective, and neuroscience perspectives.  The questions addressed in my work stem from two primary lines of research:
1)  Moderating effects of age on the processing and use of affective information, as well as the age-related variations in the neurobiological bases for these systems. 
2)  Behavioral and neurobiological relationships between attention toward and sustained processing of emotional information, and how these processes change as we age.  
Moderating Effects of Aging on Conscious Affective Processing Stages
The majority of research examining age-related changes in emotional processing has focused on differences in controlled stages of processing, those that allow conscious and elaborative processing of the emotional stimuli.  This research has indicated that aging influences controlled processing of emotional information, perhaps because older adults’ emotion regulation goals are chronically available, whereas for younger adults these emotion regulation goals are activated only in specific contexts (Mather & Knight, 2005).  
My research has investigated the underlying neural networks associated with the controlled, elaborative processing of emotional images younger and older adults, and more specifically, the degree to which aging affects the prefrontal (PFC) regions that respond in an arousal-based fashion (i.e., those that respond to positive and negative arousing items) versus those that respond in a valence-based fashion (e.g., more to negative than to positive items, or vice-versa; Leclerc & Kensinger, 2008, Cognitive, Affective, and Behavioral Neuroscience).  Some of these results suggest that regions of the prefrontal cortex not only may be differentially affected by age-related decline, but also may process emotional stimuli quite differently.
I have also utilized connectivity analyses in order to further understand the possibility that older adults compared to younger adults differentially recruit prefrontal regions during encoding of emotional images, effective connectivity analyses were utilized (Addis, Leclerc, Muscatell, & Kensinger, submitted).  Thus far, results of this work suggests that older adults’ “positivity effect” may arise from age-related changes in the interactions between affect-processing regions and the hippocampus during the encoding of positive information.
In order to more directly examine the neural mechanisms of tasks dependent on more controlled and elaborative stages of processing, my most recent line of research examines the age-related differences in emotion regulation abilities using both behavioral and fMRI methodologies.  My current fMRI experiment addresses this topic by comparing the neural processes recruited by young and older adults as they passively view stimuli and as they actively attempt to regulate their emotional responses to stimuli.  
Aging and Early Attention to Affective Stimuli
As outlined above, most of the research that has examined age differences in emotion processing has examined more controlled stages of processing. I aimed to extend this area by examining whether shifts in the influence of affective content are observable at relatively early stages of processing where cognitive operations are thought to be relatively automatic and perhaps reflective of basic brain functioning.    
Some of my more recent work examined affective processing in the context of a visual search task (Leclerc & Kensinger, 2008, Psychology and Aging).  Results sugggest that older adults do not display valence-based effects on affective processing at relatively automatic stages. Results of a separate study examining participants’ eye gaze patterns for the same task (Leclerc, Patnaik, & Kensinger, in preparation) indicate that the detection of emotional information is preserved across the lifespan, but they also indicate an attentional benefit for arousing emotional material and provide evidence against the positivity effect in early stages of emotional processing.   
Most recently, I examined the neural regions associated with performance on the visual search task across the two age groups (Leclerc & Kensinger, in preparation).  Whereas previous work has suggested that this age-related reversal is commonly seen in tasks dependent on controlled stages of processing, the current work suggests that this age-related reversal in neural activation may also extend into tasks dependent on relatively automatic stages of emotional processing.  
I have also compared early and later stages of emotional processing across younger and older adults by taking advantage of the fact that emotional responses for word stimuli require more late-stage processing than do pictures (Leclerc & Kensinger, submitted). The pattern of results is consistent with the hypothesis that older adults’ positivity effect arises from changes in the more controlled processes implemented by the PFC.
Text Box: Christina M. Leclerc, Ph.D.
Postdoctoral Fellow
christina.leclerc@bc.edu

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


Department of Psychology, Boston College

140 Commonwealth Ave., Chestnut Hill, MA 02467

Last updated: October 2008