Tag Archives: memory

By Susan Kelley
Reprinted from the Cornell Chronicle, June 25, 2012



Here's another reason to keep a photo of a loved one on your desk. After recalling an upsetting event, thinking about your mother or romantic partner can make you feel better and reduce your negative thinking, according to a new Cornell study. Perhaps most important, it also may result in fewer psychological and physical health problems at least a month afterward.

"Our own memories can often be a significant source of stress. For example, thinking about a recent breakup or underperforming on an exam usually decreases positive mood and increases negative thinking," said co-author Vivian Zayas, assistant professor of psychology. "However, simply thinking about an attachment figure, whether it is one's mother or partner, by either recalling a supportive interaction with them or just viewing their photograph, helps people restore their mood and decreases the tendency to engage in negative thinking."

The research is the first to explore the benefits of thinking about a loved one when a person experiences stress they generate themselves. Previous research has focused on the benefits when a person experiences externally generated stress, such as physical pain.

"We're showing the effectiveness of a new technique to cope with negative memories," said co-author Emre Selcuk, a Ph.D. candidate in the graduate field of human development. "As compared to prior work, it is a much less effortful, automatic and spontaneous strategy."

Past research has also focused on emotion regulation strategies that can be employed before encountering an upsetting event. "This approach is similar to wearing a raincoat to prevent oneself from getting wet," Zayas said. "But, in everyday life, it is not always possible to pre-emptively deal with upsetting events. Our work shows that one way to regulate emotion after thinking about an upsetting event is by simply thinking about an attachment figure. It is akin to getting caught in a thunder shower and using a towel to dry yourself off after you are already wet."

The paper appears online and in a forthcoming edition of the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.

To arrive at their conclusions, the authors designed a series of experiments in which they asked study participants to recall a negative memory and then think of a loved one. In the first experiment, participants were asked to think about a time when their mothers had been supportive. In the second, they looked at a photograph of their mothers, and in the third, they looked at a photograph of a romantic partner. In the control condition, participants were asked to think about an interaction with an acquaintance or look at a photograph of someone they didn't know.

After being reminded of their loved ones, people recovered faster and were less susceptible to negative thinking. At least one month after the experiment, those who benefited the most from being reminded of the loved ones reported fewer physical or psychological health problems.

The research has implications for mental and physical health, the authors say, because an inability to cope with negative memories -- that is, recalling them repeatedly -- is a major predictor of psychological and physical health problems from depression and general anxiety disorders to cardiovascular disease.

And the technique is easy to integrate into daily life, Selcuk said. "If you're moving to a new city, put a picture of your loved ones on the fridge. If you get a supportive text message from a loved one, just store it in your cell phone so you can retrieve it later."

The other authors are Cornell's Gül Günaydin, a Ph.D. candidate in the field of psychology, and Cindy Hazan, associate professor of human development, and Ethan Kross, assistant processor of psychology at the University of Michigan.

The research was supported by Cornell's Institute for the Social Sciences and the President's Council of Cornell Women.

By Karene Booker
Reprinted from Cornell Chronicle, October 11, 2011



From emergency evacuation notices to how many vegetables to eat, people need good information to make good choices. Ineffective risk communication, such as the drug warning inserts in tiny type on paper folded over some 12 times, can cost lives, money and reputations.

A chapter on risk communication by Valerie Reyna, professor of human development in the College of Human Ecology and co-director of Cornell's Center for Behavioral Economics and Decision Research, in a new book explains how people of different ages have different needs when it comes to understanding risk messages.

The chapter is part of the new book "Communicating Risks and Benefits: An Evidence-Based User's Guide," published by the Food and Drug Administration and freely available online. The book distills the science on health communications and provides recommendations for designing and evaluating messages. It features the work of experts at the forefront of research in medical decision-making and health communications.

"Messages that have an impact are those that are understood and remembered," said Reyna. "But cognitive processing and memory change dramatically from childhood to old age."

Effective risk communication is essential to the success of public health efforts, she said.

Research suggests that information processing and memory for details improve from childhood through young adulthood, but then gradually decline. However, the ability to remember the gist of information grows in childhood and remains strong throughout adulthood in the healthy brain. Remembering the gist of information is important because it lasts longer and is relied on to make most decisions, Reyna said. To instill the gist of a message, risk communication needs to be tailored by age.

Reyna's research suggests that children, for example, need information in simple short sentences, such as: "Eat fruits and vegetables." "Make half your plate fruits and vegetables." Such repetition will stamp these details into memory, but children will also need cues for meaning, such as "fruits and vegetables make you strong."

As children get older they will become increasingly able to connect the dots and extract the meaning of information, Reyna said. Older children, for example, will get the gist that apples, spinach, carrots and fish are healthy food, and fries, tacos, cola and cheeseburgers are generally not. Since children influence family food buying and make food choices at school, how they process risk messaging is important, Reyna said.

Adolescents make choices about diet and exercise, sex, driving, drinking and drugs to name a few. This is also a time when many attitudes and habits about risks and benefits take root, Reyna said.

Older adults on the other hand, face risk-benefit decisions about medications, surgical procedures and financial planning.

They need communications presented more slowly and need more memory aids due to slowing processing speed and challenges with remembering details. Written instructions, as well as alerts and reminders delivered electronically (e.g., to take medication or to signal that medication has already been taken) are likely to be helpful.

Unlike children however, older adults can rely on fairly high levels of gist knowledge. It is also essential to explain the reasons for health recommendations to them since extraction of gist is the main mechanism through which older adults remember information, Reyna said.

"To influence attitudes, values and preferences, and in turn, change behavior, the design of risk communications must take advantage of what we know about how the brain works and develops across the life span," said Reyna. "But that is just step one. We also need to use scientific methods to evaluate the effectiveness of such messages."

Karene Booker is an extension support specialist in the Department of Human Development.

Related Links:
College of Human Ecology
Valerie Reyna
Communicating Risks and Benefits - an evidence-based user's guide (PDF)

By John McKain
Reprinted from Cornell Chronicle, July 18, 2011
Charles Brainerd


Valerie Reyna


Cornell scientists have shown a significant correlation for the first time between a human gene and people's risk for mild cognitive impairment (MCI), often a precursor to Alzheimer's disease and related forms of dementia.

The findings could help doctors to recommend simple preventative measures for at-risk patients, including healthy diet, exercise and intellectual activity -- all of which could forestall and even prevent chronic symptoms associated with the disease, said lead author Charles Brainerd and Valerie Reyna, professors of human development in Cornell's College of Human Ecology.

The professors, with researchers at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., linked the ε4 allele of the apolipoprotein E (APOE) genotype to a greater likelihood of the onset of MCI in the July 4 issue of the journal Neuropsychology.

"We're excited about these findings, because they help identify the segment of the population who will most benefit from effective treatments to prevent Alzheimer's-type dementia," Brainerd said.

The clinical applications of linking this genetic marker with MCI are far-reaching, Brainerd said, because genetic testing can now be added to the neuropsychological tests that are currently the only way to identify MCI.

"What is at stake is whether genetic testing is useful for determining MCI susceptibility and candidacy for treatments that are designed to prevent or forestall/treat MCI (and therefore prevent Alzheimer's dementia)," the authors write. "If not, neuropsychological testing remains the only reliable means of identification."

Prior studies have been inconclusive owing to limits of their subject populations. In the new study, the researchers identified the link between the ε4 allele and the risk of MCI by analyzing a large data set from the National Institute on Aging, the Health and Retirement Study (HRS), that accurately represents older adults from all regions and racial and ethnic groups in the United States.

Classifying subtypes of MCI was also critical to the study's success. Led by Dr. Ronald C. Petersen and Glenn E. Smith at the Mayo Clinic, the authors successfully identified subtypes of MCI, only one of which is the precondition for Alzheimer's. The paper outlines how criteria for the different MCI subtypes developed by the Mayo researchers helped control for errors that have plagued previous studies that have attempted to identify an ε4-MCI link.

By sorting the HRS subjects who have the ε4 gene into subtypes of impairment identified in Petersen's and Smith's work, the Cornell researchers were able to show a significant correlation the ε4 gene and risk of the Alzheimer's precondition, known as amnestic MCI (or a-MCI). The results specifically show that 32 percent of study subjects who had been diagnosed as a-MCI were carriers of the ε4 APOE biomarker, as compared to only 20 percent of study subjects who had been diagnosed as normal and healthy.

The Cornell part of the research was supported by the National Institutes of Health.

John McKain is assistant dean for communications in the College of Human Ecology.

Related Links:
College of Human Ecology
Charles Brainerd
Valerie Reyna

By Karene Booker

Valerie Reyna


Charles Brainerd


To "tell the whole truth and nothing but the truth" is the maxim guiding legal testimony. But what if the witness recalls something that didn't really happen? Memory is notoriously fickle and can be influenced by many factors, including how questions are asked. We often remember general impressions but not exact details of an event and draw on that impression to fill in the gaps, sometimes creating memories we never experienced.

Now Cornell researchers have found a way to distinguish true and false memories using methods that may ultimately help in the courtroom. Current forensic interviews do not assess the specific sensory qualities of witnesses' memories. According to the new study, published in Applied Cognitive Psychology (24:8), doing so could help sort fact from fiction.

The study shows that when a person remembers something that actually happened, they have a richer memory experience. They recall the details more easily, more vividly and with greater confidence than when they remember something that didn't occur.

“The study breaks new ground in applying research on false memory to forensic contexts,” said Valerie Reyna, professor of human development, who conducted the research with Charles Brainerd, Cornell professor of human development and of law, and first author Tammy Marche, University of Saskatchewan, Canada.

The researchers modified a widely used forensic memory test that measures how much individuals are influenced by misinformation and used it in combination with another memory test. For the study, 81 undergraduates listened to a story about an armed robbery and then answered questions about it. Many of the questions were misleading, asking about something that was not in the story.

The students were then asked to review each of their answers and rate the quality of their memory (i.e., how confident they were in their response, whether it was associated with sound, the strength of their feelings, whether it brought up associated story details, and how difficult it was to remember).

The researchers found reliable differences between how students rated their memory of the real story details versus false ones. When students claimed to have heard something that wasn't mentioned in the story, they reported a harder time remembering and less confidence in their answer compared with items actually in the story. When falsely recalling unmentioned details, they also reported less association with sound and with other facts in the story.

The researchers also found that when participants were forced to choose between two false options, they were more likely to be misled and remember story details incorrectly than when answering questions in a yes-no format.

"What is unique about the forensic context is the potential for memory to be corrupted during the fact-finding process itself," said Brainerd. The "Gudjonsson" test, used in this study, assesses the degree to which this corruption is possible for an individual. Applied in police interviewing and expert testimony in court cases, this test is used to assess witnesses' susceptibility to false memories (and thus whether they are likely to be inaccurate witnesses).

"Our results have real implications for the way witnesses are questioned by investigators and how to preserve accurate memories," said Reyna. "We hope these findings will lead the way to developing diagnostic methods that can be used to determine the truth of witnesses' memory reports."

This study was supported in part by the National Science Foundation and a St. Thomas More College research grant.

By:  Aileen Costigan

CLAL members of the Alzheimer's project

CLAL members of the Alzheimer's project

A known side-effect of healthy aging is having trouble finding the right word to say. But some older adults experience more rapid decline or other language difficulties not typically found in healthy aging.

A pilot study led by Barbara Lust, professor of human development and director of the Cornell Language Acquisition Laboratory, with collaborators Dr. Janet Cohen Sherman at Massachusetts General Hospital, and Professor Suzanne Flynn at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, suggests that older adults with early Alzheimer’s disease may be especially prone to difficulty constructing complex sentences as well as finding words. Such language problems make daily communication difficult and may also be an early marker for Alzheimer’s disease or other cognitive impairments. 

“There is a distinct gap in the research on language decline in those with clinical conditions,” said Lust.  “Several studies have raised the possibility that very early Alzheimer’s disease may be associated with deterioration in written language as seen in the works of popular authors such as Iris Murdoch. One unique contribution of our project is that we are looking at what is happening in spoken language.  Another is that we are looking at sentence formation.”

Lust and the other researchers in the Cornell Language Acquisition Lab (CLAL) and the Virtual Center for Language Acquisition (VCLA) are comparing language and cognitive abilities in three groups: healthy aging adults, adults with signs of mild cognitive impairment, and young college-aged controls. Participants are asked to repeat a series of sentences and are tested on the accuracy of their repetition. So far they have tested 40 participants and they plan to test more.

Preliminary results show that the declines found in language abilities may be separate from declines in overall cognition (e.g., memory). Specifically, those with mild cognitive impairment show particular challenges with vocabulary (e.g., word finding difficulties, word substitutions) and in certain types of complex sentence formation.

Results from this research, may shed light on the mechanisms of language decline and lead to techniques for early diagnosis and interventions for both healthy and cognitively impaired older adults.

“We are also planning to compare our findings in older adults to language development in young children,” said Aileen Costigan, project manager of the Alzheimer’s project. “If the results are the same in the young and older populations, this could help us determine how language decline is likely to occur with older adults and people with Alzheimer’s disease.  We may then know more about what to expect as the disease progresses.”

The Cornell Language Acquisition Lab, led by Lust and her collaborators, Dr. Cohen Sherman, Professor Flynn, and undergraduate Jordan Whitlock, is a collaborative, interdisciplinary group of researchers, educators, and students. Together with faculty, a talented group of undergraduate students from across the University is actively engaged in gathering and analyzing the pilot data and presenting the results in regional and national conferences.

“The Alzheimer’s language project has given me the opportunity to become deeply involved in the research process beyond what I expected as an undergraduate student. I expect to use the skills I’ve developed in data analysis, management, and interdisciplinary collaboration as I enter graduate school next year,” said Jordan Whitlock, a senior majoring in Linguistics and Cognitive Studies in the College of Arts & Sciences and planning to enter the Speech and Hearing Bioscience and Technology program at Harvard-MIT’s Division of Health Sciences & Technology.

This research is supported in part by the Cornell Bronfenbrenner Center for Life Course Development, Cornell Institute for Translational Research on Aging [CITRA] Pilot Study Program, Cornell University Cognitive Science program, Cornell University Institute for Social Sciences, and Hatch Grant/Federal Formula Funds.

Aileen Costigan, Ph.D., is the project manager of the Alzheimer’s language project and researcher in the Cornell Language Acquisition Laboratory. 


Jordan WhitlockIs there a way to diagnosis Alzheimer’s disease before the symptoms start?

That is the question Jordan Whitlock, a senior working with Professor Barbara Lust’s research group, is trying to answer. If an earlier diagnosis were possible, then doctors could target this incurable disease in its beginning stages, prior to the onset of severe mental decline and brain damage. The goal of Whitlock’s research is to show if language dete­rioration can be an indicator of the early stages of Alzheimer’s. She says that the “loftiest ideal of this study is to learn about the progression of Alzheimer’s without any genetic testing.”

Professor Lust’s group uses several language testing methods while conducting this study. Whitlock focuses on a technique called Elicited Imitation, where she creates sentences that slightly vary in the specific part of speech she wishes to examine. Then, she will read these sentences aloud to a subject, who will repeat it back after a few moments. Subconsciously, the subject must reconstruct the sentence in their mind before answering.  Read the full story

Equal Justice Under LawLast semester a team of instructional designers worked with Dr. Charles Brainerd to enrich his current course "Memory and the Law" with interactive content, quizzes, additional links, and video of his lectures. The Memory and the Law course at Cornell is a cross-college course (Law/Human Ecology) and students in this course come from very different backgrounds. The course is lecture-based, and the units of the course progress from exploring the science of memory to the application of memory issues in the courtroom. Brainerd saw this project as an opportunity to repurpose and augment his materials so that students could review the course content, but also so that professionals and other types of learners could benefit from the portions of the course that were specific to their immediate needs. The intention was to simultaneously provide materials for Cornell students, and to create materials that could be used in a future distance learning format.

Noni Korf Vidal, project manager for this project, and instructional projects manager for CIT, worked on this project with her colleague Eric Howd, and 3 of Dr. Brainerd's students, Courtney Eisner, Eric Zember, and Liz Curran. Their insights into how the course materials could be improved for students were an essential element in the process.

A comprehensive online FAQ document was among the course enhancements developed, based on analysis of past tests to identify concepts more frequently misunderstood. Dr. Brainerd’s lectures were recorded, benefiting both current students who may need to miss a class as well as distance learners. Supplementary video lectures were identified as well. Interactive diagrams were developed for some of the more complex models presented in the course. But most fun are the recreations of memory tests which are conducted in the classroom.

Click here and you can try a few examples! http://courses.cit.cornell.edu/hd3190/demo/

This project was one of the Faculty Innovation in Teaching (FIT) Program projects, 20 of which are awarded annually. The FIT program is part of a larger distributed learning initiative supported by the President and the Provost. The program is designed to allow faculty to develop innovative instructional technology projects that have the potential to improve the educational process. The program provides faculty with the technical staff and other resources necessary to plan and implement their projects, thus allowing faculty to focus on their pedagogical objectives.

The CIT staff who work on the FIT awards are also part of the Faculty Support Services team at CIT. They provide consultation for instructional design, use of course technologies such as BlackBoard, and helping faculty adapt technology for their teaching needs.

For Further Information

Faculty Innovation in Teaching Program http://innovation.cornell.edu/index.cfm

Law, Psychology and Human Development: http://www.human.cornell.edu /HD/Research/concentrations/law-psychology-and-human-development.cfm

Emotions -- particularly those provoked by negative events -- can cause distorted, inaccurate memories, but less often in children than in adults, according to a new Cornell study.

The findings, published online in the Journal of Experimental Child Psychology, contradict prevailing legal and psychological thinking and have implications for the criminal justice system, report Charles Brainerd and Valerie Reyna, professors of human development and co-authors of the 2005 book "The Science of False Memory." Read More

Karene Booker

Adapted from "Researchers Develop Simple Tools to Predict Cognitive Decline in Aging" by Lauren Gold, Cornell Chronicle, 1/26/10.

For most people, misplacing the car keys or forgetting a name is an occasional annoyance of normal aging. But sometimes forgetfulness can signal the beginning of deterioration in language, attention, reasoning, judgment or memory. With large numbers of aging baby boomers, the need for simple, accurate clinical tools that identify memory changes associated with cognitive impairment is increasingly important.

In a collaboration between Weill Cornell Medical College in New York City and Cornell's Ithaca campus, Charles Brainerd and Valerie Reyna, professors of Human Development and of Psychology, have teamed up with Dr. Cary Reid, Weill Cornell geriatrician and investigator with CITRA, on a project that will improve tools for predicting and diagnosing  memory loss.

The Cornell Institute for Translational Research on Aging (CITRA), brings together community based organizations, social scientists, and medical researchers to address pressing problems in the field of aging. The contribution of CITRA's expertise and infrastructure was pivotal in securing national support.

Now, with a two-year grant from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act via the National Institutes of Health, the team is investigating whether a decline in a particular type of memory, called reconstructive memory, predicts cognitive impairment in the elderly. If the hypothesis bears out, it could lead to a breakthrough in our ability to detect cognitive decline years before the onset of major symptoms.

According to data from other studies, healthy elderly adults become mildly cognitively impaired at a rate of about 10 percent per year after age 70. Clinicians use a variety of neuropsychological tests to predict and diagnose the condition. However, the most reliable single test -- a basic verbal recall task in which a subject hears a sequence of words and then is asked to recall them – does not accurately predict future impairment.

That could be because people use three distinct strategies -- verbatim recall, reconstruction and familiarity judgment -- to retrieve information from memory. Earlier studies by Brainerd and Reyna have shown that verbatim recall, in which subjects mentally picture or hear the actual word, declines with age. To compensate, older adults use reconstruction, in which they remember something about the word (it was an animal, for example; or it started with the letter "p"), and then familiarity judgment, in which they sift through possible candidate words until they identify the right one. Since reconstructive memory relies on associations and experiences, which can be accessed through multiple pathways and networks in the brain, it is more robust and usually spared in healthy aging, Brainerd said.

But a decline in reconstructive memory could be an important and more accurate indicator of the extensive deterioration throughout the brain that causes cognitive impairment. To test the hypothesis, Brainerd and Reyna developed a mathematical model that analyzes data from verbal recall tests and estimates the amount a subject relies on each of the three memory processes.

In the first phase of the study, the researchers are using the model to analyze data from more than 800 previously tested adults -- some healthy and others already diagnosed with cognitive impairment -- and examining whether a decline in reconstructive memory is more closely linked with cognitive impairment among groups of people.

In the second phase, the researchers are testing and tracking 200 older adults over 18 months to see if performance in reconstructive memory predicts later emergence of impairment on an individual level. Recruitment and testing of study participants is now underway at sites in Ithaca and New York City and will gain momentum this summer as undergraduate and graduate students join the project. Dr. Reid is facilitating recruitment of study participants through the Irving Sherwood Wright Center on Aging in New York City and has been very helpful in advancing the project, said Reyna.

The findings could improve testing and treatment for impairment dramatically, Brainerd said. "Like any disease, the sooner you can identify it the better."

"The project is a model for integrating teaching and research and demonstrates the critical role of research-community infrastructure to facilitate and inform the research."

Human Development Outreach & Extension

Human Development Today e-News

Karene Booker

Alzheimers is a devastating disease, the more so because the onset can be confusing and difficult to detect.

Barbara Lust, professor of Human Development at Cornell University, and her colleagues want to discover and define changes in language function that occur in early and preclinical Alzheimer’s disease (AD) in order to contrast these changes with those that may occur normally with aging.

With a grant from the Institute for the Social Sciences, and seed grant funding from both CITRA (Cornell Institute for Translational Research) and  BLCC (Bronfenbrenner Life Course Center), the interdisciplinary team will complete collection and analysis of pilot data and share their initial findings. In addition to Barbara Lust, the team includes Janet Sherman, Massachusetts General Hospital; Suzanne Flynn, Massachusetts Institute of Technology; and Alexander Immerman, Cornell Language Acquisition Lab. For the study, the researchers will administer a set of language and thought tasks to participants and look for differences among three groups: a healthy aging group, a group of patients with early Alzheimers’ Disease, and a group of young adults, 20-29 years old. In addition, a study of the role of bilingualism will be initiated.

Results from the cognitive and linguistic tasks will be correlated to data from a detailed background questionnaire, designed to gather information about potential mediating social and personal factors. This will allow them test a wealth of hypotheses regarding the development and impairment of language and thought in normal aging and clinical AD.

If they find changes in language function in early and preclinical AD, it may facilitate the development of sensitive preclinical diagnostic tools that could aid in early detection of AD and assessment of its progress. In doing so, this project aims to contribute to the  development of appropriate clinical and social interventions.

Human Development Outreach & Extension