Applying NIMH Research Domain Criteria Dimensions to the Development of Emotion Regulation

The National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH)’s Research Domain Criteria (RDoC) is a research framework that integrates multiple levels of information (from genomics and circuits to behavior and self-report) to explore basic dimensions of functioning that span the full range of human behavior. While environmental and developmental influences represent important elements of the RDoC framework, it offers little specificity regarding how and when to systematically examine the impact of these dimensions on domains of function.

Investigators including Amy Byrd, PhD (Assistant Professor of Psychiatry) and Stephanie Stepp, PhD (Associate Professor of Psychiatry and Psychology), from Pitt Psychiatry, explored ways in which the RDoC could be expanded to include an explicit emphasis on a) assessing within-individual change in developmental processes over time, and b) evaluating the extent to which selective and measurable environmental influences drive meaningful change during key developmental periods. 

To demonstrate how repeated assessments within an experimental intervention design affords the unique opportunity to test the impact of malleable environmental influences on within-individual change, the investigators used 77 mother-child dyads recruited for the STEADY Study. This randomized control trial examined the impact of improvements in maternal emotion regulation on their children’s emotion regulation and mental health outcomes. Mothers with emotion regulation difficulties were randomly assigned to receive dialectical behavior therapy skills training for 12 months, and mother-child dyads were assessed every four months during the preschool period (a key developmental window known for rapid emotional development). 

Results showed that improvements in maternal emotion regulation predicted within-individual growth in child emotion regulation, and that growth was associated with fewer teacher-reported externalizing problems at a 12-month follow-up. They published the results in a special issue of Development and Psychopathology (“Using development and psychopathology principles to inform the RDoC framework”).

“Future work incorporating environmental and developmental dimensions into the RDoC framework will hasten our progress toward better characterizing within-individual change in behavior and the extent to which environmental factors influence that change by across development. Moreover, explicitly defining how and when these dimensions are assessed would significantly advance research in this area by creating a unified framework and addressing perennial methodological issues that have limited rigor and reproducibility,” said Dr. Byrd, the study’s corresponding author.

“This proof-of-concept study was the first to utilize a randomized control trial to link treatment-driven improvements in maternal emotion regulation difficulties with within-individual growth in child emotion regulation,” said Dr. Stepp, the study’s senior author. “Our findings highlight the ability of experimental intervention designs to more precisely characterize the impact of known environmental influences on developmental processes across time. Importantly, this shift in design and focus enables us to translate mechanistic findings into specific prevention and intervention targets aimed at reducing risk for psychopathology.” 

Applying new RDoC dimensions to the development of emotion regulation: Examining the influence of maternal emotion regulation on within-individual change in child emotion regulation
Byrd AL, Lee AH, Frigoletto OA, Zalewski M, Stepp SD

Development and Psychopathology, 33(5), 1821-1836. doi:10.1017/S0954579421000948