Michelle Wirth

Department of Psychology


Prof. Michelle Wirth of the Department of Psychology studies the physiology of emotion and motivation with a focus on neuroendocrine systems. Her work illuminates how stress-responsive hormones affect the brain and therefore modulate emotional, motivational, and cognitive processes. She also studies how dysregulation in stress hormone systems might contribute to emotion-processing disruptions in affective disorders, such as depression.

Prof. Wirth’s current projects include studying the roles in stress, emotion, and depression of a set of important hormones made from progesterone called neurosteroids. From animal research, we know that neurosteroids have important inhibitory and anti-stress effects in the brain. Also, levels of certain neurosteroids are lower in depressed humans compared to healthy humans. However, very little is currently known about how these hormones respond to stress and how they affect cognition and emotion in humans. Dr. Wirth is partnering with Profs. William Boggess and Michelle Joyce in the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry to measure neurosteroids in blood samples through the use of mass spectrometry.

Other ongoing projects include an examination of the effects of the hormone oxytocin in human social cognition and emotional memory; studies of hormone involvement in closeness and empathy; and studies of the effects of stress hormones on cognition, especially memory for emotional material. Results from these projects are shedding light on the nuanced interactions of personality and context on the brain and hormones, and the way hormones in turn affect the brain. Findings from these studies will also help inform a range of clinical disorders, including depression and post traumatic stress disorder.

Along with fellow Psychology faculty member Jessica Payne, Prof. Wirth helps lead an interdisciplinary faculty discussion group “Conversations on Brain, Mind and Behavior” (CBMB). The group brings together faculty—and increasingly, graduate students—from several disciplines, including biology, psychology, philosophy, anthropology, and business, to discuss individual members’ work in cognitive science, neuroscience, philosophy of mind, and the biology of behavior. CBMB also brings speakers whose research concerns brain and mind to campus. Past speakers included Dr. Frans de Waal of Emory University and Dr. Barbara Bendlin of the University of Wisconsin.