UArizona Psychologists Receive $2.9M to Study Neural Mechanisms of Emotions in Couples

two members of a couple with their heads in their hands

Relationship struggles can have a significant impact on well-being and even risk for depression. Researchers want to better understand how.

COVID-19 has illuminated the importance of social connections, but it's also placed a strain on some relationships, which can in turn impact mental health.

University of Arizona psychologists are launching a new study to better understand how difficulties in romantic relationships affect mental health and well-being.

Headshot of researcher David Sbarra

David Sbarra

With support from a $2.9 million grant from the National Institute of Mental Health, UArizona psychology professors Jessica Andrews-Hanna and David Sbarra will conduct a neuroimaging study of 200 romantic couples, looking at how both members of a couple process social information, and the ways in which these neural responses may affect risk for depression.

"The basic idea of this study is simple," Sbarra said. "Our romantic relationships can bring us tremendous joy and happiness, but when these relationships are strained, the risk for emotional pain and suffering increases enormously. We didn't plan this to be a COVID-related study, but after a year in lockdown, loneliness and disconnection are very relevant – now more than ever, I'd say."

The researchers are specifically interested in studying the processes that may explain exactly why and how relationship difficulties have such a profoundly negative impact on mental health.

"We study the multiple ways in which relationship struggles may impact our well-being," Andrews-Hanna said. "We use MRI to study activations in brain regions associated with emotions and empathy when people are thinking about their partner. We also study how couples communicate on a daily basis by using two smartphone apps that our team developed, and when our participants come to the lab, we also ask them to engage in a support task because we know social support is a key factor in well-being and mental health."

Jessica Andrews-Hanna headshot

Jessica Andrews-Hanna

"An especially exciting feature of this work is that we're studying both members of a couple to learn how one person's emotional experience is shaped by his or her partner," Sbarra said. "To my knowledge, there are very few neuroimaging studies that recruit and study both members of the couple. This is a major advance, and I think the scientific payoff will be high."

The new study will begin recruiting couples at the end of July and will run for the next four years.

"It's an enormous study and a huge team effort, and I'm expecting the findings will be groundbreaking for our understanding of relationships and mental health," Andrews-Hanna said.

Sbarra and Andrews-Hanna will conduct the study along with UArizona researchers Erin Maresh, a postdoctoral fellow in psychology; John Allen and Matthias Mehl, both professors of psychology; and Emily Butler, a professor of family studies and human development in the university's Norton School of Family and Consumer Sciences.

"Mental health and well-being are critical components of overall health, and this grant provides an exciting opportunity for our researchers to learn more about the role that our relationships play in this area," said University of Arizona President Robert C. Robbins. "This is truly innovative and interesting work. I am excited to follow their outcomes." 

The researchers are recruiting married or non-married couples who have lived together for at least six months. Participants will be paid for their time, and those interested can email

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