How stress-responsive and other hormones, including cortisol, oxytocin, allopregnanolone, and testosterone, affect the brain and therefore modulate emotional, motivational, and cognitive processes.
Dr. Wirth studies the physiology of emotion and motivation with a focus on neuroendocrine systems. She is interested in how stress-responsive and other hormones, including cortisol, oxytocin, allopregnanolone, and testosterone, affect the brain and therefore modulate emotional, motivational, and cognitive processes. She is also interested in how dysregulation in stress hormone systems might contribute to emotion-processing disruptions in affective disorders such as depression.
One of Dr. Wirth’s current projects is studying the effects of the hormone oxytocin on emotional responsivity, stress, and cognition. Some researchers believe that oxytocin selectively enhances social information processing. However, fMRI and non-human animal research show broad effects of oxytocin on memory- and emotion-related regions of the brain, including amygdala, hippocampus and prefrontal cortex. With this project, we hope to understand how oxytocin affects not just social memory, but other aspects of human cognition. We are also investigating how oxytocin impacts other hormonal systems and peripheral physiological responses.
A second major project, “Glucocorticoid sensitivity and well-being in aging: bi-directional relationships” (funded through the National Institute on Aging), adds measurement of HPA axis negative feedback – that is, the ability of the stress axis to turn itself off - to the rich longitudinal data set from the Notre Dame Health & Well-Being (NDHWB) study. With this data, it will be possible to examine how a person’s degree of negative feedback both impacts and is impacted by their health and well-being. HPA axis negative feedback is measured by the degree of suppression of an upstream hormone, ACTH, caused by an injection of a low dose of cortisol (compared to a control day with no cortisol injection.) Negative feedback data will be combined with the NDHWB study’s multiple years of data on individual differences, life stress, daily stressors, mood, and health outcomes. This will provide an unprecedented opportunity to discover time-course relationships between stress, mood, and dysregulation in the HPA axis, and will help us understand the development of well-being and resilience against illness across the lifespan.
Dr. Wirth’s interests also include the roles progesterone and neurosteroids made from progesterone (such as allopregnanolone) in stress and other emotional processes, affiliation/attachment, and disorders such as depression and anxiety.
Dr. Wirth’s post-doctoral project concurrently examined cortisol's effects on stress physiology (HPA axis negative feedback) and its effects on cognition (emotional memory). Other topics of current and past study include: psychophysiology (facial muscle activity) involvement in emotional cognition; neuroendocrine (hormonal) involvement in emotions and motivations related to dominance and affiliation/bonding; facial expressions of emotion as social signals; and how personality differences affect the impact of social stress on hormonal systems. In the past, Dr. Wirth studied brain systems involved in hunger and satiety in an animal model; her experience with both animal and human neuroscience informs her work.
If you are interested in joining Dr. Wirth’s laboratory, please email your resume/CV and unofficial transcript to firstname.lastname@example.org. We will keep your information on file and contact you if there is an available opening for the following semester.
Gaffey, A. E., Bergeman, C. M., Clark, L. A., Wirth, M. M., 2016. The HPA axis and resilience to stress in older adults. Neuroscience & Biobehavioral Reveiws, 68: 928-45.
Wirth, M. M., Gaffey, A. E., Martinez, B. S., 2015. Effects of intranasal oxytocin on steroid hormones in men and women. Neuropsychobiology, 71(4): 202-211.
Wirth, M. M., 2015.Hormones, stress, and cognition: The effects of glucocorticoids and oxytocin on memory. Adaptive Human Behavior and Physiology, 1: 177-201. NIHMSID #634664.
Gaffey, A. E., Wirth, M. M., Hoks, R. M., Jahn, A. L., Abercrombie, H. C., 2014. Circulating cortisol levels after exogenous cortisol administration are higher in women using hormonal contraceptives: Data from two preliminary studies.Stress. 17(4): 314-20.
Wirth, M. M. 2011. Beyond the HPA axis: progesterone-derived neuroactive steroids in human stress and emotion. Frontiers in Endocrinology 2:19 (Special Issue: Neurosteroids). doi: 10.3389/fendo.2011.00019.
Wirth, M. M., Scherer, S. M., Hoks, R. M., Abercrombie, H. C., 2011. The effect of cortisol on emotional responses depends on order of cortisol and placebo administration in a within-subjects design. Psychoneuroendocrinology 36(7): 945-54. NIHMSID: 257450.
Stanton, S. J., Wirth, M. M., Waugh, C. E. and Schultheiss, O. C., 2009. Endogenous testosterone levels are associated with amygdala and ventromedial prefrontal cortex responses to anger faces in men but not women. Biological Psychology 81(2): 118-22. PMCID: PMC2691609.
Wirth, M. M., Schultheiss, O. C., 2007. Basal testosterone moderates responses to anger faces in humans. Physiology and Behavior 90(2-3): 496-505.
Wirth, M. M., Meier, E. A., Fredrickson, B. L., Schultheiss, O.C., 2007. Relationship between salivary cortisol and progesterone levels in humans. Biological Psychology 74: 104-107.
Wirth, M. M., Schultheiss, O. C., 2006. Effects of affiliation arousal (hope of closeness) and affiliation stress (fear of rejection) on progesterone and cortisol. Hormones and Behavior 50: 786-95.
Wirth, M. M., Welsh, K. M., Schultheiss, O. C., 2006. Salivary cortisol changes in humans after winning or losing a dominance contest depend on implicit power motivation. Hormones and Behavior 49: 346-52.