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Early Career Psychologist Spotlight

SoAP Box: 
Early Career Psychologist Spotlight

Fall 2022

Mateo Leganes-Fonteneau, PhD

Where do you work and in what capacity?
I am researcher in cognitive neuropsychology. I work as Assistant Research Professor at the Cardiac Neuroscience Laboratory within the Center for Alcohol and Substance Use Studies at Rutgers University.

Where did you do your training?
I received my PhD in Cognitive Psychology at the University of Sussex, UK, under the supervision of Prof. Theodora Duka. Prior to that I completed two undergraduate degrees in social work and psychology in my hometown, at the University of Valencia, Spain. During that time I completed a social work internship at an addiction recovery center and worked as a volunteer research assistant. Finally, before starting my PhD I did a research stay for a year at the Department of Cognitive Neuroscience and Neuroergonomics at the Jagielonian University in Krakow, Poland.

What are your research interests?
I work on interoception and addiction, I am interested in understanding how our brain uses signals from our body to generate adaptive and maladaptive cognitive, motivational and emotional responses. Thus, my research uses a multidisciplinary approach, at the intersection between cognitive-behavioral experiments, psychophysiology and psychopharmacology.I use pharmacological alcohol administration to examine the bodily correlates of acute alcohol intoxication, trying to understand how changes in bodily sensations and cardiovascular processing shape motivational responses, perception of alcohol effects and alcohol expectancies when drinking. We are also interested in the bodily correlates of hangover, and are currently studying with Prof. Angelo DiBello whether the perception of bodily sensations the morning after a drinking episode can predict hangover severity and the likelihood to engage in hazardous drinking. This research can help determine whether interoceptive hypersensitivity to alcohol or hangover can be a risk or protective factor for alcohol misuse.

I also work on developing basic experimental methodologies to study interoception. I achieve this in the laboratory by timing, in real-time, the presentation of stimuli to participants’ own heartbeat. This allows to observe individual differences in the extent to which the heart supports cognitive processes, such as emotional face detection and inhibitory control. The goal is to then use these methodologies to identify dysfunctional interoceptive mechanisms underlying maladaptive cognitive and behavioral responses in addiction and other mental health disorders.

This basic research can inform the development of adjunct clinical tools based on modulating interoception. My long term goal is to explore new techniques for “interoceptive retraining”, helping patients become aware of their bodily sensations when experiencing craving and stress, and using paced breathing interventions to improve body-brain connectivity.

How did you become interested in addictive behaviors?
My interest in addiction started as a child. In the 90s and early 2000s, the remnants of the heroin epidemic of the 80s were still very present in my city. Historically, heroin consumption in Spain has taken place in encampments located in the outskirts of big cities, and individuals would either travel there daily, or live in extremely precarious situations within the encampment. My neighborhood was located next to one of these camps, and I would see people who used substances come and go daily.

That sparked my interest in why these individuals were doing this and what could be done to help them. I completed a degree in Social Work and an internship at a rehabilitation center, with the aim of working in an intervention setting. However, the economic situation in Spain was dire, and most social services got defunded so I decided to pursue a degree in Psychology. I had always been interested in sciences, biology and behavior and from the first semester I loved stats and cognitive psychology classes. I started collaborating with one of my professors, using my experience in addiction settings to run experimental research with cocaine addicts. This experience showed me I could bring together my love for science and my desire to help people with addiction and helped me decide I wanted to pursue a career in academia.

What advice or recommendations would you have for early career addiction scientists?
A PhD program should provide training in all the different facets of research, giving ERCs good building blocks for their post-doctoral years. My advice to anyone starting at PhD would be to try and develop their own research interests within the laboratory and to, if possible, take ownership for all components of at least one research project. Try to design your own studies, if it involves cognitive tasks, learn how to program them from the scratch. Do your own stats, if a statistical analysis is too complex and you cannot do it on your own, then try a simpler analysis or seek advanced training programs. If possible, collect every single one of your data points, learning how to navigate data collection issues will make you a better supervisor later on.

I would also encourage anyone to learn how to code at least one programming language (i.e. Matlab, Python, R…). The time investment will pay off throughout your entire career, it now takes me a couple hours to do what would be a week’s worth of work at the start of my PhD. Being able to program your own experiments also means you can move your research towards new paradigms and ideas beyond what others have done in your laboratory, and it helps build an independent research portfolio. I think it is also important to be multidisciplinary, to be able to use at least a couple of techniques that don’t necessarily go together. In my case, I finished my PhD knowing how to do alcohol administration procedures and how to program cognitive tasks involving cardiovascular processing. These two techniques, plus what I have kept learning during my post-doctoral years, has opened large possibilities for my own research and for collaborations with other researchers.

Finally, I would suggest reading old literature in addiction and psychology. I find that most often any new idea I have is just another perspective on something that was already hypothesized 50 years ago. Being able to relate to someone’s research in a new way gives me a different kind of fulfilment, and provides my research with an additional significance layer, which is always appreciated by the more senior researchers.

Any other information that you would like to share about yourself with other SoAP members? (e.g., how do you spend your time outside of work, pet projects)
I love working out, I recently completed my first IronMan 70.3, which was very daunting but one of the best experiences ever. I am also a musician, and I’ve played in many bands throughout the years. Touring Europe 3 months before finishing my PhD was equally fun and stressful. Nowadays I play electronic music, and I recently got into modular synthesizers which is one of the geekiest possible ways to create weird sounds. 

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