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Senior Investigator

Ellen Leibenluft, M.D.

Section on Mood Dysregulation and Neuroscience
Building 15K
MSC 2670
Bethesda MD 20892-2670
Office: (301) 496-9435
Lab: (301) 496-9435
Fax: (301) 402-6100
LEIBS@MAIL.NIH.GOV

Ellen Leibenluft, M.D. is a Senior Investigator and Chief of the Section on Mood Dysregulation and Neuroscience and Co-Chief of the Emotion and Development Branch in the Intramural Research Program of the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH).

Dr. Leibenluft’s research involves the use of cognitive neuroscience and neuroimaging techniques, including functional MRI, to uncover the brain mechanisms that underlie severe irritability in youth. In particular, her work focuses on the role that abnormal responses to frustration and to threat stimuli play in childhood irritability. Using this knowledge, Dr. Leibenluft’s team develops and tests new treatments for irritability in children, including cognitive-behavioral and brain training approaches. Dr. Leibenluft also has identified differences in clinical course and brain function between youth with bipolar disorder and those with severe, non-episodic irritability, and has done significant research on brain dysfunction in children with bipolar disorder or at familial risk for the disorder.

Dr. Leibenluft completed her B.A. from Yale University summa cum laude, her M.D. from Stanford University, and residency training at Georgetown University. Since 1989, she has been conducting research at the NIMH. She has authored over 250 publications. She is currently a Deputy Editor of Biological Psychiatry and served as a Deputy Editor of the Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry. She has served on the editorial boards of the American Journal of Psychiatry, Bipolar Disorders, Depression and Anxiety, and the Journal of Child and Adolescent Psychopharmacology; and is a member of the Advisory Board of the Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry.

Dr. Leibenluft is a Fellow of the American College of Neuropsychopharmacology and of the American Psychiatric Association. She is Co-chair of the American Psychiatric Association DSM-5 Steering Committee. Her awards include the NIMH Director’s Merit Award; NIMH and NIH Outstanding Mentor Awards; the American Psychiatric Association Blanche Ittelson Award for Research in Child and Adolescent Psychiatry; Special Service Awards from the NIH; the Litchfield Lectureship at Oxford University; and the Michael Rutter lectureship of the Royal College of Psychiatrists.

Among all her achievements and activities, she considers mentoring to be one of her most important professional roles.



SMDN focuses primarily on discovering the brain mechanisms mediating chronic, severe irritability, and on using those discoveries to generate new treatments. Our studies of irritability include both youth with the DSM-5 diagnosis of Disruptive Mood Dysregulation Disorder (DMDD) and those whose irritability is more mild but still impairing, such as those with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). Our major tool for studying brain mechanisms is functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI). This fMRI neuroimaging work provides information that guides the development of novel treatments, which we then test. Thus, we conduct pathophysiological research, based on systems neuroscience principles and techniques, with the goal of informing novel treatment development.

Our focus on irritability arose in response to questions about whether severely impairing irritability, without distinct manic episodes, should be considered to be a form of pediatric BD. To facilitate research on this question, we defined a syndrome called severe mood dysregulation (SMD); this research informed the DSM-5 discussions regarding DMDD. Our brain-based research, in concert with longitudinal and family studies, support the conclusion that, while both BD and chronic irritability are both very impairing in youth, they are not manifestations of the same illness. That is, relatively few youth with severe irritability develop BD in adulthood. This conclusion has significant treatment implications, in that first-line treatments for BD and DMDD are likely to differ.

Indeed, since DMDD is a new diagnosis, few treatments have been tested. Much of our research is designed to elucidate the brain mechanisms mediating irritability, both in DMDD, where it is particularly severe, and in anxiety disorders, depression, and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, where irritability is also common. Careful clinical phenotyping is a hallmark of our work. As noted above, our work on brain mechanisms centers on fMRI studies, although we also use other neuroimaging techniques, as well as ecological momentary assessment, eye tracking, behavioral testing, and other approaches. The tasks that we use in the fMRI scanner focus on responses to frustration, face emotion processing, cognitive control, and attentional mechanisms. Based on these and related studies, much of our current work focuses on testing several novel psychological treatments, including computer-based treatments and a cognitive behavioral therapy that uses exposure techniques and target irritability specifically.


Clinical Protocols:




  • Characterization and Pathophysiology of Severe Mood and Behavioral Dysregulation in Children and Youth ( 02-M-0021 )
  • The phenomenology and neurophysiology of affective dysregulation in children and adolescents with bipolar disorder ( 00-M-0198 )

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  • Julia Brooks, B.A.
    Post baccalaureate IRTA Fellow

  • Sofia Cardenas, B.S.
    Post baccalaureate IRTA Fellow

  • Elise Cardinale, Ph.D.
    Postdoctoral Fellow

  • Michal Clayton, B.A.
    Post baccalaureate IRTA Fellow

  • Mollie Davis, LCSW-C
    Clinician

  • Simone Haller, Ph.D.
    Postdoctoral Fellow

  • Katharina Kircanski, Ph.D.
    Postdoctoral Fellow

  • Julia Linke, Ph.D.
    Postdoctoral Fellow

  • Cheri McNeil, Psy.D.
    Clinical Psychologist

  • Gretchen Perhamus, B.A.
    Post baccalaureate IRTA Fellow

  • Samantha Perlstein, B.A.
    Post baccalaureate IRTA Fellow

  • Andrew Ross, B.A.
    Post baccalaureate IRTA Fellow

  • Alexandra Roule, B.A.
    Post baccalaureate IRTA Fellow

  • Wan-Ling Tseng, Ph.D.
    Postdoctoral Fellow

  • Wanda Wheeler, LCSW-C
    Clinician

  • Catherine Yokum, LCSW-C
    Clinician

  • 1) Stoddard, J., Tseng, W.-L., Kim, P., Chen, G., Yi, J., Donahue, L., Brotman, M.A., Towbin, K.E., Pine, D.S., Leibenluft, E. (2017)
  • Irritability, anxiety, and the neural processes of implicit face emotion processing in youth
  • Journal of the American Medical Association Psychiatry, 74, 95-103. doi: 10.1001/jamapsychiatry.2016.3282
  • 2) Leibenluft E (2017)
  • Pediatric Irritability: A Systems Neuroscience Approach
  • Trends in Cognitive Science, 21, 277-289.doi: 10.1016/j.tics.2017.02.002
  • 3) Pagliaccio, D., Wiggins, J.L., Adleman, N.E., Harkins, E., Curhan, A., Towbin, K.E., Brotman, M.A., Pine, D.S., Leibenluft, E (2017)
  • Behavioral and neural sustained attention deficits in bipolar disorder and familial risk for bipolar
  • Biological Psychiatry, 56, 426-435, doi: 10.1016/j.jaac.2017.02.008. Epub 2017 Mar 7
  • 4) Brotman, M.A., Kircanski, K., Stringaris, A., Pine, D.S., Leibenluft, E (2017)
  • Irritability in youths: A translational model
  • American Journal of Psychiatry, 174, 520-532 , doi: 10.1176/appi.ajp.2016.16070839
  • 5) Wiggins J.L., Brotman M.A., Adleman N.E., Kim P., Oakes A.H., Reynolds R.C., Chen G., Pine D.S., Leibenluft, E (2016)
  • Neural correlates of irritability in disruptive mood dysregulation and bipolar disorder
  • American Journal of Psychiatry, 173, 722-730. doi: 10.1176/appi.ajp.2015.15060833
  • 6) Shaw P, Stringaris A, Nigg JT, Leibenluft E (2014)
  • Emotional dysregulation in attention deficit hyperactivity disorder
  • Am J Psychiatry, 171(3), 276-93
  • 7) Deveney CM, Connolly ME, Haring CT, Bones BL, Reynolds RC, Kim P, Pine DS, Leibenluft E (2013)
  • Neural mechanisms of frustration in chronically irritable youth
  • Am J Psychiatry, 170(10), 1186-94
  • 8) Leibenluft E, Stoddard J (2013)
  • The developmental psychopathology of irritability
  • Development and Psychopathology, 25, 1473-87
  • 9) Thomas LA, Brotman MA, Muhrer EM, Rosen BH, Bones BL, Reynolds RC, Deveney C, Pine DS, Leibenluft E (2012)
  • Parametric modulation of neural activity by emotion in youth with bipolar disorder, severe mood dysregulation, and healthy subjects
  • Arch Gen Psychiatry, 69, 1257-1266
  • 10) Stringaris A, Goodman R, Ferdinanso S, Razdun V, Muhrer E, Leibenluft E, Brotman M (2012)
  • The Affective Reactivity Index: A concise irritability scale for clinical and research settings
  • J Child Psychol Psychiatry, 53, 1109-17
  • 11) Kim, P, Thomas LA, Rosen BH, Moscicki AM, Brotman MA, Zarate CS, Blair RJR, Pine DS, Leibenluft E (2012)
  • Different amygdala responses to facial expressions in children vs. adults with bipolar disorder
  • Am J Psychiatry, 169, 642-649
  • 12) Olsavsky AK, Brotman MA, Rutenberg JG, Muhrer EJ, Deveney CM, Fromm SJ, Towbin K, Pine DS, Leibenluft E (2012)
  • Amygdala hyperactivation during face emotion processing in unaffected youth at risk for bipolar disorder
  • J Am Acad Child and Adolesc Psychiatry, 51, 294-303
  • 13) Leibenluft E (2011)
  • Severe mood dysregulation, irritability, and the diagnostic boundaries of bipolar disorder in youths
  • Am J Psychiatry , 168, 129-142
  • 14) Brotman MA, Rich BA, Guyer AE, Lunsford JR, Horsey SE, Reising MM, Thomas LA, Fromm SJ, Towbin K, Pine DS, Leibenluft E (2010)
  • Amygdala activation during emotion processing of neutral faces in children with severe mood dysregulation versus ADHD or bipolar disorder
  • Am J Psychiatry, 167, 61-69
  • 15) Leibenluft E, Charney DS, Towbin KE, Bhangoo RK, Pine DS (2003)
  • Defining clinical phenotypes of juvenile mania
  • Am J Psychiatry , 160, 430-437
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