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Research at Riggs

The Austen Riggs Center, through the Erikson Institute, has a strong historical commitment to research. Research at Riggs grows out of our work with our patients and our practice-based learning about complex psychopathology, human development, social processes, and psychoanalytic psychotherapy.

We see research as a two-way endeavor that extends our clinical knowledge into related fields and brings knowledge back into the institution to deepen and refine our understanding and clinical practice.

These investigations involve the use of innovative methods and collaborative partnerships with other health care organizations to better understand the sociocultural, interpersonal, developmental, and biological factors that impact individuals contending with adversity, at the Austen Riggs Center and beyond.

Our current research projects are described below – major projects support our strategic initiatives that are currently being implemented as a part of our mission to meaningfully contribute to the field of mental health treatment. Others have grown out of the passions and interests of our clinical staff.

Discovering Your Baby Project
Principal Investigator: 
Donna Elmendorf, PhD; Co-Investigator: Claudia Gold, MD

Part of the Human Development Strategic Initiative, the Discovering Your Baby Project, is a multifaceted project including both empirical research and community intervention aimed at supporting parents who are welcoming newborns into their family to create positive new relationships and connect with their natural expertise. Funding has been received from Berkshire County United Way, the John Leopold Weil and Geraldine Rickard Weil Memorial Charitable Foundation, Inc., and an anonymous donor.

The Impact of Interpersonal Experiences on Maladaptive Thoughts and Behaviors: Principal Investigator: Katie Lewis, PhD; Co-Investigator Jane G. Tillman, PhD

Follow-Up to the States of Mind Preceding a Near Lethal Suicide Attempt Study
Principal Investigator: 
Jane G Tillman, PhD; Co-Investigator: Katie C. Lewis, PhD

Two studies are now underway as part of the Suicide Research and Education Strategic Initiative. The Impact of Interpersonal Experiences on Maladaptive Thoughts and Behaviors is investigating the role that daily interpersonal interactions play in affecting mood, experiences of self and others, and fluctuations in self-destructive impulses using experience sampling methods. Dr. Lewis has been named the Robert S. Wallerstein Fellow in Psychoanalytic Research by the San Francisco Center for Psychoanalysis for her work on this project.

Also in development is a follow-up study to the “States of Mind Preceding a Near Lethal Suicide Attempt” project. The original study was a mixed-methods study which evaluated indicators of risk for suicide and resilience in individuals in residential treatment as well as the affective and cognitive processes that occur during suicidal crises. The current longitudinal follow-up project will build upon the original study to understand how risk and protective factors for suicide change over time. Recruitment for this study is expected to begin in summer 2017.

Fidelity Testing, Manual of Psychodynamic Psychopharmacology
Principal Investigator: 
David Mintz, MD

As part of the Psychodynamic Psychopharmacology Strategic Initiative, Riggs is codifying its approach to the pharmacotherapy of treatment resistant patients that emphasizes that how one prescribes often contributes as much to a successful outcome as what one prescribes. Specifically, we hope to demonstrate that an approach to prescribing which considers the complicated meanings the medications have to patients, which understands that the prescriber-patient relationship can profoundly affect treatment trajectories, and which emphasizes patient authority can produce superior outcomes to treatment-as-usual.  Once the manual (now under contract with the American Psychiatric Association Press) is developed, research will involve fidelity testing of the manual with prescribers at Austen Riggs and ultimately, a clinical trial of the approach.

MRI-Based Characterization of Complex Psychopathology
Principal Investigator: Andrew Gerber, MD, PhD

The core of the Neural Mediators of Psychotherapeutic Change Strategic Initiative, this research project explores how psychological and psychiatric processes are associated with brain structure and function. This is an emerging area of study, fueled in part by the assembly of the Human Connectome Project (HCP), a national research database of brain images and clinical data captured from healthy participants. We will recruit and study subjects with mental illness, and use HCP protocols to capture clinical and brain magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) data. We can then compare our findings directly to HCP database subjects. These findings can potentially help us to better understand the basis of mental illness; if successful, future studies will explore the impact of mental illness treatment on brain differences. Funding for this project has been generously provided by Bill and Deborah Ryan. The project aims to start data collection from participants in late 2017.

Comparing Social Cognition between Individuals Diagnosed with Borderline Personality Disorder and Schizophrenia
Principal Investigator: 
Jeremy Ridenour, PsyD; Co-Investigators: Katie Lewis, PhD; John Poston, PhD, Assistant Professor of Psychology, Biola University

This project uses clinical archives of psychological testing files to assess individuals' social cognitive ability and how an assessment of this might impact treatment intervention and response. Dr. Ridenour is also involved in research studies at the MERIT Institute, an international group of researchers based in Indianapolis, investigating the psychotherapy of schizophrenia that has been termed Metacognitive Reflection and Insight Therapy (MERIT). MERIT shares many similar principles with psychodynamic psychotherapy, including a focus on the centrality of the therapeutic relationship, an attempt to understand the meaning of symptoms (and form a life narrative), and an appreciation how emotions impact our thoughts and perceptions. These projects aim to study how certain contexts (e.g., self-reflection, interpersonal closeness, emotional dysregulation) might precipitate psychotic symptoms in the course of psychotherapy.

Risk, Resilience and Reflective Functioning
Principal Investigator: 
Marilyn Charles, PhD

This study is focused on understanding the reflective functioning capacities (measured through the Metacognition Assessment Scale) of individuals with various psychiatric diagnoses. Dr. Charles is collaborating with researchers from George Fox University (Nancy Thurston, PsyD, ABPP and members of her research lab), the University of Monterrey (Mexico; Alejandro Moreno and Leslie Thompson, and members of their research labs), and other institutions to better understand the reflective capacities of individuals with psychosis, eating disorders, trauma, and other clinical concerns. Dr. Charles is also the primary investigator in charge of management of the Follow Along Study (FAS) dataset. The FAS was a longitudinal research study conducted at Austen Riggs between 1992 and 2001 which focused on understanding the naturalistic course of improvement in patients attending residential treatment. Several peer-reviewed articles have been published using FAS data, including studies that investigated how clinical factors relate to decreases in suicidality and symptom severity over time, the impact of childhood adversity on adult interpersonal functioning, and conceptual considerations and approaches to clinical interviewing.

Dr. Andrew Gerber Discusses the Broad Impact of Research at the Austen Riggs Center

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