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Neurobiology behind Schemas and Modes


by Sarah Cohen Woods


A large number of biological and molecular perturbations associated with psychological disorders have been identified, including changes in brain structure, neurological connections, inflammation, and epigenomic factors, as well as genomic risk. However, integration with how these factors relate to the development and maintenance of schemas, critical in psychological disorders, is still emerging. Genomic risk, and potentially dynamic biologic and neurological changes, need to be integrated with current perspectives of schemas, and the to role of early experiences such as trauma. Neurobiological processing differences related to schema-related learning will be described, differentiating between different stages of schema development. Genomic risk factors for psychological disorders that exhibit early maladaptive schemas, such as depression, are being identified, however their relation to the development of specific schemas is not known; this will be crucial knowledge for the future. Individuals, however, do not exist in genetic silos, and experience life and a range of exposures from conception. Integration of environmental risk factors, their relation to schema development and disorders, and biological measurements or indicators of these exposures, have potential to inform the underlying neurobiology of the schema development. By targeting these biological factors it may be possible to identify individuals at risk, or target novel therapeutics. Further complicating the development and trajectories of schemas through the life-course, is the compounding effect across generations of trauma-related exposures, call inter- and transgenerational inheritance of trauma. The mechanism of this intergenerational transmission has been suggested to be epigenetic. Whilst epigenetic inheritance of stress in humans has been the subject of numerous recent reviews and media articles, a mechanism in humans has not yet been clearly established. However, the inheritance of parental trauma may significantly contribute to an individual's own schema. Indicative evidence for epigenetic transmission of stress in humans comes from detection of alterations in patterns of DNA methylation in peripheral blood and saliva cells of children whose parents were exposed to trauma before their conception. Such evidence in humans has been limited to correlational cross-generational studies investigating somatic cells (i.e. peripheral blood or saliva), rather than robust tests of epigenetic inheritance. There is emerging evidence that epigenetic factors may be altered in the sperm of individuals with a history of child or adult trauma but sample sizes are extremely small and methods have been limited. Crucially, no studies to date have incorporated the assessment of schemas, which are likely to be related to these exposures. Gaps and new paths forward in the investigations of the neurobiological bases of schema will be described, and how improving the neurobiological understanding of schema may benefit clinicians in the future.


About the Presenters:

Sarah Cohen Woods:

Sarah Cohen-Woods is an Associate Professor of Psychology at Flinders University in Adelaide, South Australia. Sarah received a BSc (Hons) in Psychology from the University of Leeds in 2003, and an MSc (2004) and PhD (2008) from the Institute of Psychiatry and Neuroscience, King's College London. In 2012 she moved to University of Adelaide, moving and setting up her laboratory at Flinders University in 2016. Since then the Behavioural Genomic and Environmental Mechanisms (Behavioural GEMs) lab which she heads, has grown exponentially with five PhD, one Masters (Clinical Psychology), and four Honours students.Working closely with world-leading academic clinicians, the Behavioural GEMs lab works to integrate, and understand how, environmental factors influence genetic and epigenetic risk factors on cognitive processes, brain function and structure, and psychological disorders such as depression, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, and eating disorders. 

Sarah has held competitive research fellowships in the U.K., and in Australia, and secured over $2 million ingrant funding in Australia, since she moved in 2012.Sarah has published over 70peer-reviewed journal articles, half in the top 5% of international journals based on Scimago Journal Rankings. Her h-indexis 29, with an i-index of 47; publications can be seen here. Sarah collaborates with multiple international consortia. She sits on the Southgate Institute executive, Girls Uniform Agenda, the Australian Brain Science Network EMCR steering and executive committees, and the Biological Psychiatry Australia Executive.A particular passion is communicating science to the public, collaborating with local schools and providing public lectures. In 2019, Sarah was awarded the Young Tall Poppy Award for excellence in science, and commitment to science communication.A further passion has been uniform choice advocacy for girls, contributing to legislative changes in multiple states across Australia 


Why Schema Therapy?

Schema therapy has been extensively researched to effectively treat a wide variety of typically treatment resistant conditions, including Borderline Personality Disorder and Narcissistic Personality Disorder. Read our summary of the latest research comparing the dramatic results of schema therapy compared to other standard models of psychotherapy.

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