Abigail Marsh, PhD

Dr. Abigail Marsh is an Associate Professor of Psychology at Georgetown University where she teaches and conducts research on social and affective neuroscience. She received her PhD in Social Psychology from Harvard University in 2004, and conducted post-doctoral research in the Unit on Affective Cognitive Neuroscience at the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) from 2004-2008. At Georgetown, her research program focuses on characterizing the neural substrates of empathy and behaviors like altruism and aggression that empathy can promote or inhibit. This research is primarily aimed at addressing questions like: How do people understand what others think and feel? What drives us to help other people? What prevents us from harming them? She addresses these questions using multiple methods that include functional and structural brain imaging in adolescents and adults from both healthy and clinical populations, as well as behavioral, cognitive, genetic, and pharmacological techniques.

Her work with James Blair at the NIMH includes the first ever neuroimaging studies to identify the pathophysiology of psychopathy in adolescents. This research implicated disruptions in the functioning of the amygdala and associated structures in the striatum and prefrontal cortex in the development of psychopathy. Her subsequent research has directly linked the amygdala pathophysiology identified in youths with psychopathic traits to their aggressive behavior. Recent research aims to explore empathy by assessing neural and cognitive function in extraordinary altruists.

She recently completed the first ever series of structural and functional neuroimaging studies comparing altruistic living kidney donors to controls. This research found that highly altruistic individuals exhibit patterns of amygdala structure and functioning that are opposite to those of psychopaths, suggesting that empathic responsiveness may exist on a spectrum, and that common mechanisms can be used to understand both very prosocial and very antisocial behavior.