Elizabeth Olson, PhD

Elizabeth Olson, PhD

McLean Hospital Title
Harvard Medical School Title
  • Assistant Professor of Psychology, Department of Psychiatry


Elizabeth Olson, PhD, focuses her research on alterations in decision-making and reward processing following exposure to stress and trauma. She uses multimodal neuroimaging techniques and behavioral paradigms to examine mechanisms underlying stress-related changes in complex cognitive processes. Her current research focuses on how changes in social reward valuation might affect social behavior in women exposed to interpersonal assault.

Dr. Olson completed her PhD in clinical psychology at the University of Minnesota. Her dissertation involved behavioral and neuroimaging analyses of longitudinal delay and probability discounting and neuroimaging data. She completed a pre-doctoral internship and two-year post-doctoral fellowship in adult clinical neuropsychology. Then, she joined the Center for Depression, Anxiety and Stress Research at McLean, where she completed an additional post-doctoral fellowship in affective cognitive neuroscience.

Research Focus:

In her research, Dr. Olson uses cognitive neuroscience approaches to understand the cognitive and neurobiological factors that affect executive functioning and decision-making. Her research examines both healthy populations and individuals with stress and trauma-related psychopathology.

Dr. Olson received a grant from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to investigate the underlying neurobiological mechanisms leading to social withdrawal following trauma exposure. For this work, she used a neuroeconomic paradigm, known as the Trust Task, to examine how social reward functioning operates in individuals who have been exposed to trauma. A deeper understanding of these neurological mechanisms could help reduce health issues related to trauma exposure, including risk of disability, reduced immune response, increased mortality risk, and suicidality.

In addition to her NIH grant, Dr. Olson is the recipient of a NARSAD Young Investigator Award from the Brain and Behavior Research Foundation (2017-2019). She used this award to investigate how interactions between the insula and the nucleus accumbens contribute to decision-making in post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

In other work, Dr. Olson has emphasized the use of diffusion tensor imaging (DTI), a magnetic resonance imaging technique that measures the directionality of water diffusion in the brain, and structural morphometry. Using both tract-based spatial statistics and probabilistic tractography, she demonstrated reduced fractional anisotropy in a left frontal lobe cluster and in the left inferior longitudinal fasciculus, a long-association pathway connecting sensory (visual & auditory) and limbic cortices, in a community-based sample of individuals with PTSD.

Recently, Dr. Olson has used resting state functional magnetic resonance imaging to examine functional connectivity in trauma-exposed populations. Using seed-based resting state functional connectivity, she identified that anhedonia following trauma exposure is associated with altered connectivity between the nucleus accumbens and dorsomedial prefrontal cortex. Additionally, she identified altered resting state functional connectivity between the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex and precuneus in PTSD.

Selected Publications:

Olson EA, Kaiser RH, Pizzagalli DA, Rauch SL, Rosso IM. Anhedonia in trauma-exposed individuals: functional connectivity and decision-making correlates. Biological Psychiatry. Cognitive Neuroscience and Neuroimaging. 2018; 3:959-967.

Olson EA, Kaiser RH, Pizzagalli DA, Rauch SL, Rosso IM. Regional prefrontal resting state connectivity in posttraumatic stress disorder. Biological Psychiatry. Cognitive Neuroscience and Neuroimaging. 2019; 4:390-398.

Olson EA, Overbey TA, Ostrand CG, Pizzagalli DA, Rauch SL, Rosso IM. Childhood maltreatment experiences are associated with altered diffusion in occipito-temporal white matter pathways. Brain and Behavior. 2019; e01485.

PubMed search for Dr. Olson

Education & Training

  • 2002 BA, Haverford College
  • 2008 MA, University of Minnesota
  • 2010 PhD, University of Minnesota
  • 2010-2012 Post-Doctoral Fellowship in Clinical Neuropsychology, Department of Psychiatry, Massachusetts Mental Health Center, Division of Public Psychiatry, Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center
  • 2013-2014 Post-Doctoral Fellowship, Center for Depression, Anxiety and Stress Research, McLean Hospital


Phone: 617.855.2281
Office Address: Belmont campus - de Marneffe Building, Room 226