Isabelle M. Rosso, PhD

Isabelle M. Rosso, PhD

McLean Hospital Title
  • Director, Anxiety and Traumatic Stress Disorders Laboratory

Harvard Medical School Title
  • Associate Professor of Psychology, Department of Psychiatry


Isabelle M. Rosso is the director of the Anxiety and Traumatic Stress Disorders Laboratory which studies neurobiological phenotypes of emotional disorders, and relates them to behavioral and clinical phenotypes. Psychiatric research has reached an exciting juncture where the neuroscience knowledge and methods exist that can lead to a mechanistic understanding of psychopathology—particularly using NIMH’s dimensional research framework known as RDoC. In this vein, her laboratory is studying post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) using magnetic resonance methods, and relating brain changes with fundamental behavioral dimensions such as fear extinction.

Dr. Rosso’s current research is representative of a longstanding interest in neurobehavioral markers of risk and disease processes in psychiatric illness. This started with graduate school study of neurodevelopmental precursors of schizophrenia at the University of Pennsylvania, continued with a neuroimaging fellowship at Harvard, and hopefully will culminate with significant contributions to understanding risk and resilience in stress- and anxiety-related syndromes.

Research Focus:

The Anxiety and Traumatic Stress Disorders Laboratory, led by Dr. Rosso, alongside Scott L. Rauch, MD, was founded in 2014 and is part of the Center for Depression, Anxiety and Stress Research (CDASR).

Dr. Rosso conducts research on PTSD and anxiety disorders, hoping to inform future diagnosis and lead to new treatments for these serious and often debilitating conditions. The primary focus of the lab is understanding the neurobiological basis of PTSD, a debilitating illness in which a fear response learned during a traumatic event does not abate and the biological processes that mediate recovery from trauma are impeded.

The lab uses brain imaging technologies to study the function, structure, and chemistry of the brain in both healthy people and patients with PTSD, anxiety, and depression. They also use behavioral paradigms, including tasks that assess learning and memory, to study the relationship between the brain and behavior.

Areas of interest to Dr. Rosso and her group have included identifying cognitive and brain mechanisms underlying the development of persistent trauma-related mental disorders such as PTSD, examining the shared versus distinct brain changes across different anxiety and emotional disorders, investigating the neural mechanisms underlying risk and resilience for emotional disorders and why some people develop PTSD after experiencing trauma while other people do not, determining whether there are brain “markers” of risk and resilience to trauma, and studying the brain changes that occur during successful treatment of emotional disorders.

In a study of cerebral GABA and fear conditioning in PTSD, the lab used magnetic resonance spectroscopy (MRS) to examine whether PTSD patients compared with healthy subjects have abnormal levels of certain neurotransmitters in brain regions that mediate fear, and whether these neurochemical alterations are correlated with patients’ performance on a behavioral task of fear learning and extinction. This allowed the lab to attempt to determine whether brain chemicals measured with MRS may hold promise as neurobiological markers of PTSD’s core behavioral features, whether they may inform biologically-based definitions of the disorder, or if they can be used as targets for developing new treatments.

Dr. Rosso’s group has also investigated levels of the neurotransmitter glutamate in the hippocampus of adults with PTSD, using MRS. There is evidence from animal research that chronic stress and trauma can lead to neuronal atrophy and death in the hippocampus, mediated by excess levels of the glutamate in this brain region. The study examined whether in vivo glutamate, as detected with MRS, might be a biological marker of PTSD, and whether it is associated with certain types of clinical symptoms as well as with measures of stress and anxiety.

Drs. Rosso and Rauch strive to understand the effectiveness of internet-based cognitive behavioral therapy (iCBT) treatment on improving depressive symptoms, coping and resilience skills, and cognitive processing. In this study, adults with major depressive disorder were assessed before and after a 10-week course of iCBT. Identifying and mapping the brain systems before and after treatment may help researchers guide future attempts to implement iCBT as a large-scale option for treating individuals with depression.

Selected Publications:

Rosso IM, Makris N, Britton JC, Price LM, Gold AL, Zai D, Bruyere J, Deckersbach T, Killgore WD, Rauch SL. Anxiety sensitivity correlates with two indices of right anterior insula structure in specific animal phobia. Depression & Anxiety 2010;27(12):1104-10.

Weber M, Killgore WD, Rosso IM, Britton JC, Schwab ZJ, Weiner MR, Simon NM, Pollack MH, Rauch SL. Voxel-based morphometric gray matter correlates of posttraumatic stress disorder. Journal of Anxiety Disorders 2013;27(4):413-9.

Rosso IM, Weiner MR, Crowley DJ, Silveri MM, Rauch SL, Jensen JE. Insula and anterior cingulate GABA levels in posttraumatic stress disorder: preliminary findings using magnetic resonance spectroscopy. Depression & Anxiety 2014;31(2):115-23.

PubMed search for Dr. Rosso

Education & Training

  • 1993 AB, Dartmouth College
  • 1996 MA, University of Pennsylvania
  • 2002 PhD, University of Pennsylvania
  • 2001-2002 Clinical Psychology Pre-Doctoral Internship, McLean Hospital
  • 2002-2004 Neuroimaging Research Fellowship, McLean Hospital
Board Certifications:
  • 2007 Licensed Psychologist and Health Services Provider, Board of Registration of Psychologists, Commonwealth of Massachusetts


Phone: 617.855.2607
Office Address: Belmont campus - de Marneffe Building, Room 232