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Clinical, Cognitive, Faculty, Neuroscience

Dr. Wen Li

Northwestern University, 2004

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Dr. Li will be accepting a graduate student for Fall 2017 admissions.

Research Interests

Our goal is to characterize sensory-cortex-based processing of threat information and to understand neural mechanisms underpinning the generation and degeneration of threat codes in the sensory cortex.

Current Research

Behavior, Cognition and Emotion, Perception and Movement.

Research Description

How do people extract emotional meaning from an environmental input and respond with fear, anger or joy? Focusing on threat-relevant emotions, we approach this question from a neurosensory perspective (i.e., sensory-cortex-based threat encoding): The sensory cortex stores threat codes and thus supports active, independent encoding of threat cues during sensory processing, initiating defensive responses directly or interactively with the limbic system (Li, 2014; Krusemark & Li, 2013). This sensory mechanism provides an additional pathway to threat processing beyond the limbic system, while making clear evolutionary sense by permitting categorization of biological significance of an environmental input in the initial sensory analysis, prompting people to respond with minimal delay. Furthermore, in individuals with high levels of anxiety or anxious predispositions, sensory cortical encoding of threat could be exaggerated, and combined with limbic hyperreactivity to threat and inadequate prefrontal inhibition thereof, these processes can contribute to a vicious cycle, accounting for the genesis and maintenance of pathological anxiety.

Using a combination of tools and techniques (fMRI, EEG/MEG, psychophysiology and psychophysics), our research proceeds in three directions: (1) proposing a neurosensory mechanism of threat encoding (and anxiety) that expands the existing models; (2) identifying the signature of sensory-cortical encoding of threat (in anxiety); (3) identifying sensory cortical plasticity induced by aversive learning as a mechanism underlying the formation and maintenance of threat codes in the sensory cortex; and (4) examining sensory cortical plasticity as a result of perceptual training, thereby rewriting or erasing threat codes in the sensory cortex to reduce fear responses and anxiety symptoms.

Selected Publications


Please see PubMed for most recent publications

Li, W.(2014). Learning to smell danger: Acquired associative representation of threat in the olfactory cortex. Frontiers in Behavioral Neuroscience.

*Krusemark, E.A., *Novak, L., Gitelman, D., & Li, W.(2013). When the Sense of Smell Meets Emotion: Anxiety-State-Dependent Olfactory Processing and Neural Circuitry Adaptation. Journal of Neuroscience,33,15324-15332.

*Krusemark, E.A. & Li, W.(2013). From Early sensory specialization to later perceptual generalization: Dynamic temporal progression in perceiving individual threats. Journal of Neuroscience, 33, 587-94.

*Forscher, E.C., & Li, W.(2012). Hemispheric asymmetry and visuo-olfactory integration in perceiving subthreshold(micro) fearful expressions. Journal of Neuroscience, 32, 2159-2165.

*Krusemark, E.A., & Li, W.(2012). Enhanced olfactory sensory perception of threat in anxiety: An event-related fMRI study.Chemosensory Perception 5, 37-45.

Baskin-Sommers, A., Curtin, J.J., Li, W.,& Newman, J.P. (2012). Psychopathy-related differences in selections in selective attention are captured by an early event related potential. Persoanlity Disorders: Theory, Research and Treatment, 3,370-378.

Lake, A.J., Baskin-Sommers, A.R., Li, W., Curtin, J.J., & Newman, J.P. (2011) Evidence for unique threat-processing mechanisms in psychopathic and anxious individuals. Cognitive, Affective, and Behavioral Neuroscience, 11, 451-462

*Krusemark, E.A., & Li, W. (2011). Do all threats work the same way? Divergent effects of fear and disgust on sensoryperception and attention. Journal of Neuroscience, 31, 3429-34.

Li, W.,Howard, J. D., & Gottfried, J.A. (2010). Disruption of odor quality coding in piriform cortex mediates olfactory deficits in Alzheimer’s disease. Brain, 133, 2714-26. PMID: 20724290.

Li, W., Lopez, L., Osher, J., Howard, J. D., Parrish, T., & Gottfried, J.A. (2010). Right Orbitofrontal Cortex Mediates Conscious Olfactory Perception. Psychological Science, 21, 1454-63. PMID: 20817780.

Chen, J.C.C., Li, W., Liu, M., & Paller, K.A. (2009). Brain potentials and conceptual implicit memory for subliminally presented words. Brain Research, 12845, 135-47. PMID: 19505447.

Li, W., Howard, J. D., Parrish, T., & Gottfried, J.A. (2008). Aversive learning enhances perceptual and cortical discrimination of indiscriminable odor cues. Science, 319, 1842-1845.

Li, W., Zinbarg, R.E., Boehm, S.G., & Paller, K.A. (2008). Neural and behavioral evidence for affective priming from unconsciously perceived emotional facial expressions and the influence of trait anxiety. Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience, 2095-107.

Li, W., Paller, K.A., & Zinbarg, R.E. (2008). Unconscious priming of threat words varies with trait anxiety. Cognition and Emotion, 22,44-62.

Li, W., Moallem, I., Paller, K.A., & Gottfried, J.A. (2007). Subliminal smells can guide social preferences. Psychological Science, 18,1044-1049.

Li, W.,Zinbarg, R.E., & Paller, K.A. (2007). Trait anxiety modulates both supraliminal and subliminal threat: Brain potential evidence for both early and late processing. Cognitive, Affective and Behavioral Neuroscience, 7, 25-36.

Li, W., & Zinbarg, R.E. (2007). Anxiety sensitivity and panic—A one-year longitudinal study. Behavior Modification, 31, 145-161.

Li, W., Luxenberg, E., Parrish, T., & Gottfried, J.A. (2006). Learning to smell the roses: experience-dependent plasticity in human piriform and orbitofrontal cortices. Neuron, 52,1097-1108.

*denotes trainee of CANLab


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