Tag Archives: neuroscience

Reprinted from the Cornell Chronicle, May 5, 2016


Marcus Moreno '17

Marcos Moreno ’17 has received a 2016 Udall scholarship, which supports undergraduates with excellent academic records and who show potential for careers in environmental public policy, health care and tribal public policy.

Moreno, a human development major concentrating in neuroscience in the College of Human Ecology, was one of five health care scholars selected to receive the award. Overall, he was among the 60 candidates selected out of 482 candidates from 227 colleges and universities. The scholarship provides $7,000 for one year.

Moreno is a member of the Pascua Yaqui tribe, born and raised on the Pascua Yaqui reservation in southern Arizona. He is a pre-med student, studying neuroscience and American Indian studies, with extensive experience as a researcher.

He is currently working in two Cornell laboratories: the child development lab of Gary Evans, the Elizabeth Lee Vincent Professor in the Departments of Design and Environmental Analysis and of Human Development, and the integrative neuroethology lab of Alexander Ophir, assistant professor of psychology. Moreno has also been a part of a public health project for his tribe’s reservation in 2014, has participated in medical brigades in West Africa and has spent time volunteering in his tribe’s affiliate health clinics.

At Cornell, he is a resident adviser at Akwe:kon and a First in Class mobilizer with the Office of Academic Diversity Initiatives program to support first-generation students. He also volunteers as a tutor for Native American students from the Onondaga Nation at Lafayette Junior and Senior High School in Lafayette, New York.

Upon completion of medical school, he intends to return to his Arizona reservation as a primary care physician with a focus on the interconnections between physical and mental health.

The 2016 Udall Scholars will assemble August 9-14 in Tucson, Arizona, to meet one another and program alumni, learn more about the Udall legacy of public service and interact with community leaders in environmental fields, tribal health care and governance.

The Udall Foundation is an independent federal agency established by Congress to honor Congressman Morris K. Udall and Secretary of the Interior Stewart L. Udall. Its programs promote leadership, education, collaboration and conflict resolution in the areas of the environment, public lands, natural resources and Native nations.

Ong & Loeckenhoff New book probes emotion, aging and health                                                                         New approaches to understanding physical and psychological changes in old age – differences in personality, for instance, or responses to stressful events and the role of positive emotions in promoting well-being – are presented in a new book co-edited                                       by Cornell human development professors Anthony Ong  and Corinna Loeckenhoff.                   
QiWangTNRetweeting may overload your brain                                                                                               In a digital world where information is at your fingertips, be prepared to hold on tight before it slips right through them. Research at Cornell and Beijing University finds retweeting or otherwise sharing information creates a “cognitive overload” that                                           interferes with learning and retaining what you’ve just seen.
bebesInside Cornell’s BABY Labs                                                                                                            Steven S. Robertson and Marianella Casasola, professors in Human Development, run baby labs at Cornell. where researchers are discovering more about the nuances of infant development. It’s a crucial area of academic research and exploration, given the                               impact early development has on later stages of life.
 20120827_rns74_portrait_25Mapping the Resting-state Brain                                                                                                         In the Department of Human Development, fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging) informs Nathan Spreng’s studies of large-scale brain network dynamics and their role in cognition.
BaileyPSPIimage-200x300 Checking Up on the Science of Homosexuality                                                                               A new systematic review and commentary published in the journal Psychological Science in the Public Interest takes a sweeping look at what the evidence says about homosexuality and sexual orientation in general. 

Student in the News

 Human Ecology Faculty-Led Undergraduate Research. Eve DeRosa / Annie EricksonSide by side                                                                                                                                       Many undergraduates in Human Development work side by side with faculty in the lab. Read about this transformative approach to learning in an interview with Annie Erickson '16 and her mentor, Professor Eve De Rosa.

 More Stories

K.KinzlerStudies Suggest Multilingual Exposure Boosts Children's Communication Skills      Listen to NPR's Robert Siegel's interview with Katherine Kinzler, associate professor of psychology and human development, about her research on the development of social skills in monolingual and multilingual children.                                                                                 


video play button                                                                                                                                                          Professor Corinna Loeckenhoff talks about aging with Karl Pillemer, Director of the BCTR


Reprinted from Human Ecology Magazine, Spring 2016


Nathan Spreng, Assistant Professor in Human Development

In the Department of Human Development, fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging) informs Nathan Spreng’s studies of large-scale brain network dynamics and their role in cognition.

A Rebecca Q. and James C. Morgan Sesquicentennial Faculty Fellow, Spreng is curious about how volunteer test subjects in his Laboratory of Brain and Cognition conceive of the future and how they navigate the social world. Then there’s the hypothesized link between thinking about the past and imagining the future. “These different cognitive tasks activate similar brain regions,” Spreng
explains. “But it’s actually the other regions they talk to that help determine whether we’re thinking about the past or the future.”

It’s not only when the brain is doing something—performing cognitive tasks—that’s interesting to Spreng. Neuroscientists also study brain activity while people are simply resting in the scanner. But do our brains ever truly “rest”?

Not according to Spreng: “Signaling is always going on up there. Understanding how different brain regions hum along together (or are connected functionally) while people are simply resting can tell us a lot about how their brains work during cognitive tasks, and might eventually help us predict how resilient they will be to aging or brain disease.”

Spreng believes there’s even more in the resting-state fMRI data than previously imagined. In collaboration with Peter Doerschuk, professor of biomedical engineering, Spreng is developing a new method for analyzing resting-state activity. Doerschuk, also a Harvard-educated medical doctor, excels at developing algorithms for high-performance software systems.

In published reports of their progress so far, Spreng and Doerschuk say they’re finding ways to add important new details to the map of the resting brain— details like causality and direction of information flow between regions. Cause
and signaling direction are important considerations, Spreng notes, “when characterizing exactly how that network operates, and how information flows through the system, and how it might be involved in cognitive functions.”

The Cornell collaborators say their new statistical method shows promise in tracking both causation and direction of neural signals, showing us that the resting brain is anything but.

Republished from Human Ecology Magazine, Spring 2016

Annie Erickson & Eve De Rosa

Human Ecology Faculty-Led Undergraduate Research. Eve DeRosa / Annie Erickson

Human Ecology Faculty-Led Undergraduate Research. Eve DeRosa / Annie Erickson

What does your lab study?

Annie Erickson ’16: Our lab is interested in studying the neural basis of cognitive processes such as attention, learning, and memory. To investigate these complex neural mechanisms, we use a cross-species approach studying both human and animals. We are interested in the neurochemicals that modulate cognition— specifically, a neurotransmitter called acetylcholine. My project focuses on the effect of acute and chronic caffeine intake on cognition in rats, testing whether caffeine can rescue cognitive deficits that have been induced by blocking acetylcholine.

Why study caffeine?

Eve De Rosa, Associate Professor of Human Development and Rebecca Q. and James C. Morgan Sesquicentennial Fellow: We all drink coffee, but we don’t always give deep thought to how it affects attention, learning, and memory. That’s why I love the real-world importance of Annie’s honors thesis question. She’s finding cognitive tasks that both rats and humans can perform so that we can translate the basic science experiments in the lab to our understanding of human cognition.

What do you like about this work?

Erickson: After following this project from conception to experimental setup to final execution, it’ll be incredibly exciting to see the results. It’s been inspiring to work with Eve, and to see the way she’s able to balance research, teaching, and family. She’s so enthusiastic and positive, and I really enjoy discussing my ideas with her, because she’s always so encouraging.

De Rosa: I love mentoring students like Annie! After participating in the lab as an undergrad research assistant, she approached me with this wonderful question about looking at caffeine’s ability to boost cognition, and whether it was caffeine’s interaction with acetylcholine that underlies this ability.

The fact that caffeine is a cognitive enhancer is something I was already aware of, but not that it might be important in slowing the decline of pathological cognitive aging, like in Alzheimer’s disease. When Annie brought that idea to me, I could see why it might be worth taking a chance to pursue the question.

What’s the risk?

De Rosa: Rat neuroscience is expensive, and it’s not my primary research focus. I’m very interested in acetylcholine, which declines during normal aging, and in using functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging to assess brain activity. But Annie’s research is something I would never have pursued on my own. And now I’m having so much fun reading the literature, thinking about how it relates to my larger research vision.

Erickson: Through the process of developing my independent project, Eve has provided crucial advice while also being incredibly flexible in letting me explore different ideas. She’s shown how important collaboration is for successful research and I’ve learned so much about thinking and writing scientifically—skills that are fundamental to a future in research.

In 2015, Annie Erickson received the Human Ecology Undergraduate Summer Research Stipend, and is currently working toward an honors thesis funded by the Human Ecology Alumni Association

by Stacey Chen ‘18

Stacey Chen

Stacey Chen '18

This summer, I’ve had the pleasure of combining the ultimate camp experience with the experience of working in a laboratory and conducting exciting, cutting-edge in-field research on decision making. The project, Health and the Brain Neuroscience Outreach, is a Cornell Cooperative Extension internship under the direction of Dr. Valerie Reyna. The mission of the CCE internship program is to translate and apply Cornell research in ways that can benefit communities all around New York State.

In late March, I joined Dr. Reyna’s Laboratory for Rational Decision Making as a member of the Health and Medical Decision Making Team, whose goal is to use research on decision making to help educators and medical professionals effectively use theory-based interventions and communicate risks to patients. Using the information they’ve effectively learned, these patients can then make informed decisions about their health.

Valerie Reyna, director of the Human Neuroscience Institute and co-director of the Cornell MRI Facility

Valerie Reyna, director of the Human Neuroscience Institute and co-director of the Cornell MRI Facility

My first task of the project was to update the curricula taught to middle school students in past years at 4-H Camp Bristol Hills, in Canandaigua, New York. Looking at two modules, Nutrition & Neuroscience and Genetics & Neuroscience. The goal of teaching both curricula was to help students better understand obesity prevention and genetic risk using theory and evidence-based methods.

The curricula were based on Dr. Reyna’s research on decision-making and the importance of incorporating “gist” (a fuzzy or vague representation that contrasts with a precise verbatim representation) into the lesson plans in order to see the effectiveness of a gist-enhanced curriculum. According to Fuzzy-Trace Theory, people tend to rely on gist (bottom-line meaning) rather than verbatim representations (such as exact wording or specific numbers) whenever they make decisions. In teaching the campers, the goal was to see an improvement in retaining the information learned through gist when making decisions, such as deciding between eating a cupcake or eating an apple. Examples of gist-enhanced concepts are: “Developing healthy eating and exercise habits has both long-term and short-term benefits for a person’s physical and mental health,” and “Your diet should consist mostly of fruits and vegetables.”

I was extremely excited to be able to work with the campers. It’s very rewarding to be able to be the person to expose kids to new information, especially the kind that has the potential to affect their lives for the better– like knowing the nutrition concepts and science behind eating well and exercising more, or understanding more about how genetics work. By reviewing Dr. Reyna’s research, I was able to generate a list of possibilities for fun, informative, and engaging activities for the campers. In order to get a better perspective of what a camper would like (around the ages between 11-14), I talked to kids of that age to get their opinions and feedback to develop the most effective and engaging activities. I also read and dissected Dr. Reyna’s empirical research, such as A Theory of Medical Decision Making and Health: Fuzzy Trace Theory (Reyna 2008) and Efficacy of a Web-Based Intelligent Tutoring System for Communicating Genetic Risk of Breast Cancer: A Fuzzy-Trace Theory Approach (Wolfe et al. 2015), to understand the theory behind what we teach in Health and the Brain. Her past publications revolve around how humans remember and process information, which is essential to the development of activities and curriculum for the camp.

After solidifying teaching plans and curricula, I was able to generate and order a material list needed for this year’s curricula. I also started looking into data from previous years to get a better idea of the project through learning how to use IBM SPSS Statistics software. Though at times learning the program has proven to be challenging, the skill set used in statistical analyses is essential to the research process and for my future career goals. Throughout my time of preparation of Health and the Brain in the lab, I have learned much about working in the lab and interacting with not only fellow researchers, but also professionals in other fields, and had a challenging yet enjoyable time getting acquainted to it. I’ve learned that time management is key to completing the project successfully, and held many practice sessions teaching the curriculum and improving my notes and lesson plans.

My adventure at 4-H Camp Bristol Hills began with staff training, including how to mitigate bullying, report child abuse, how to effectively work with kids, and how to de-escalate situations, etc. Staff training allowed me to be well prepared when the kids come to camp in order to make sure that the kids can get the best possible camp experience, and also to get a better sense of how to best engage and recruit kids to participate in the Health and the Brain Outreach Program. During my time at camp, I stayed in a log cabin called Big Dipper, which housed me, Corrine Casal '16, Margaret Sloan'18 (both from the Adolescent Transitions Lab at Cornell), and Sophia Franck (another intern working on a social media project for the camp).  Connecting with all other counselors was very exciting, and I was able to join in on all the camp traditions, such as getting named by another counselor or fun camp songs or skits. We all use camp names at 4-H Camp Bristol Hills, and on the last day of each week, the campers try to guess our real names. My name at camp was Fence-Apella (Pella), because I fenced and sang a capella in high school! It was so inspiring to see how enthusiastic and welcoming the other counselors are to make sure the campers have the greatest time and feel comfortable at camp. The kids were so lucky to have such a diverse selection of activities, ranging from Archery and Air Riflery to Critter Care (where there are two baby white rabbits, hedgehogs, and even snakes).

After staff training came Week 1 of camp, when I finally got to meet all the bright-eyed campers! Every Sunday morning, I woke up early to drive with a graduate student from my lab to Canandaigua, New York, where 4-H Camp Bristol Hills is located. The natural beauty of the area and the camp is breathtaking, especially when the sun sets. Before each week starts, the camp staff had a potluck lunch meeting to get ready for the campers’ arrivals. Registration then began at around 1:30/2 PM for the campers. In order to recruit for the project, I set up a huge poster and table exemplifying all the fun activities and crafts we would do in Health and the Brain, and also talked to parents and campers who were waiting in line. Week after week, I became also more accustomed to and more successful in recruiting campers to participate in Health & the Brain. As an afternoon recreation activity, many campers were excited about drawing brains on swim caps and making DNA using pipe cleaners and beads, along with many other hands-on games and activities. It was so interesting to find kids who were so excited about science and wanted to sign up immediately, and to find others who were more curious and trying to find something that they felt passionate in and wanted to give science a try. After getting everything organized and settling down after the registration period, I would eat dinner with the campers. One of my favorite times during the weeks was being able to meet new kids during mealtimes and talk about their different interests, ranging from horseback riding to TV shows. At night, I would participate in a warm campfire and an evening program, where the counselors and campers get together to do all kinds of fun games with different stations to get the campers to make new friends and be comfortable being themselves at camp.

Health & the Brain had a lot of really bright and curious kids, which was very inspiring. Teaching the curricula at camp was very successful. Many of them knew so much already and had so many questions for me; I’m not sure if I even knew as much as they do when I were their age! A lot of the campers were very inquisitive about different cancer issues and genetic questions and also interested in eating healthier and exercising well. Many had a lot of prior knowledge on vitamins and minerals and where they come from, such as iron from meats and protein or calcium from dairy products. They were also very keen on wearing their “brain swim caps” into the pool and showing off their DNAs to friends. The kids told me again and again how much fun they had and how much they had learned. Many of them were excited about getting a head start in school on the different topics revolving around neuroscience, genetics, and nutrition. Hearing great answers from campers made me feel like I really made a difference in their lives. For the processed foods activity in the nutrition curriculum, the campers split up into two groups: both of them are workers at food company’s factory, but in order to emphasize the differences between highly processed and unprocessed foods, one company processes the core ingredient (styrofoam ball) highly using trans fat (clay), high fructose corn syrup (glitter glue), etc., while the other company only cuts and packages the product. This activity, while very entertaining and involves a lot of the campers’ favorite hands on materials, like clay and beads, also starts the discussion for which product represents a healthier food choice and why.

During my last week at 4-H Camp Bristol Hills, I was able to work with Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) campers. I learned that part of working in the field for research involves flexibility, which was required to work around the STEM camper’s busy schedules in order to allow them to have the opportunity to be in Health & the Brain! During Monday through Wednesday, while I worked with other resident campers, other Cornell students working with Professor Franck from the Physics department worked with the STEM campers on building radios and satellite dishes. During my time with them on Thursday and Friday, they asked so many great questions for each topic, especially neuroscience. They knew so many things about the brain that were very advanced. Many of them had watched or read a lot about the brain and knew about different parts of the brain or case studies of special brain trauma, such as memory mechanisms in the hippocampus, or Phineas Gage, the American railroad construction foreman who had an accident that damaged most of his frontal lobe.

Even though each camp session lasts only one week, being together and meeting all these new campers makes one feel very connected to the camp and the kids, especially during moments where the entire camp gets together to hold hands and sing the goodnight song together. When I had to leave at the end of each week, despite being content and proud of a great week, I also felt an underlying sense of sadness to have to leave such a beautiful community where all the kids find places to truly be themselves and find best friends. The camp environment never ceased to amaze me; the campers were brimming with enthusiasm and the counselors still managed to top it week after week. While I’m saddened by the conclusion of my time at camp, I’m also very happy to have made so many great friends, amazing memories, and learned so many things!

Lindsay Dower '17

Lindsay Dower '17

I want to give special thanks to Dr. Reyna, Lindsay Dower ‘17, Dr. Priscila Brust-Renck '15, Dr. Allison Hermann and Tim Davis for allowing me to have the opportunity to be a part of such an exciting outreach project. Your continued support and guidance throughout the project was a huge factor for its success. I also want to thank the staff of 4-H Camp Bristol Hills for welcoming me with open arms, supporting me, and inspiring me with their enthusiasm and hard work! My internship with CCE Health and the Brain Neuroscience Outreach at 4-H Camp Bristol Hills has been such a memorable time. I’m incredibly grateful for the wonderful experience I’ve had this summer, which has allowed me to better understand not only how scientific research labs work and learn the techniques necessary in the future for my own work, but also the opportunity to conduct actual in-field research. With my love for working with kids and being able to get the full log-cabin camp experience, my time at camp has been absolutely phenomenal. This experience has allowed me to solidify my decision to pursue clinical psychology graduate work as a career, and inspired me to take on all opportunities with enthusiasm and determination.

Steve RoberstonSteven Robertson, a developmental psychologist and Professor of Human Development at Cornell University, worked with students from the Division for Nutritional Sciences in the College for Human Ecology on a new approach for assessing the effects of nutrition on infant recognition memory through the use of Electroencephalographic (EEG) imaging.

Read more here

By Karene Booker
Reprinted from Cornell Chronicle, October 14, 2014

To solve a mental puzzle, the brain’s executive control network for externally focused, goal-oriented thinking must activate, while the network for internally directed thinking like daydreaming must be turned down to avoid interference – or so we thought.

New research led by Cornell neuroscientist Nathan Spreng shows for the first time that engaging brain areas linked to so-called “off-task” mental activities (such as mind-wandering and reminiscing) can actually boost performance on some challenging mental tasks. The results advance our understanding of how externally and internally focused neural networks interact to facilitate complex thought, the authors say.

“The prevailing view is that activating brain regions referred to as the default network impairs performance on attention-demanding tasks because this network is associated with behaviors such as mind-wandering,” said Spreng, assistant professor of human development and the Rebecca Q. and James C. Morgan Sesquicentennial Faculty Fellow in Cornell’s College of Human Ecology. “Our study is the first to demonstrate the opposite – that engaging the default network can also improve performance.”

The study is the first published research conducted in the new Cornell MRI Facility (CMRIF), Spreng said.

There are plenty of neuroimaging studies showing that default network activation interferes with complex mental tasks – but in most, Spreng explained, the mental processes associated with default network conflict with task goals. If you start thinking about what you did last weekend while taking notes during a lecture, for example, your note-taking and ability to keep up will suffer.

Spreng and his team developed a new approach in which off-task processes such as reminiscing can support rather than conflict with the aims of the experimental task. Their novel task, “famous faces n-back,” tests whether accessing long-term memory about famous people, which typically engages default network brain regions, can support short-term memory performance, which typically engages executive control regions.

While undergoing brain scanning, 36 young adults viewed sets of famous and anonymous faces in sequence and were asked to identify whether the current face matched the one presented two faces back. The team found participants were faster and more accurate when matching famous faces than when matching anonymous faces and that this better short-term memory performance was associated with greater activity in the default network. The results show that activity in the default brain regions can support performance on goal-directed tasks when task demands align with processes supported by the default network, the authors say.

“Outside the laboratory, pursuing goals involves processing information filled with personal meaning – knowledge about past experiences, motivations, future plans and social context,” Spreng said. “Our study suggests that the default network and executive control networks dynamically interact to facilitate an ongoing dialogue between the pursuit of external goals and internal meaning.”

The study, “Goal-congruent default network activity facilitates cognitive control,” published in October in the Journal of Neuroscience, was funded in part by the National Institutes of Health and the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada. Co-authors are graduate student Elizabeth DuPre ’14, Juliana Garcia ’14, Judith Mildner ’14 and CMRIF technical director Wenming Luh from Cornell, and Dhawal Selarka, Stefan Gojkovic and Gary R. Turner from York University, Canada.

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

Related Links:

The paper
Nathan Spreng
College of Human Ecology

Students and professors in Human Development worked this past summer to move their research into the real world at 4-H Camp Bristol Hills.

Kathleen McCormick '16 and Alexandra Holmes '16 invite students to join the journaling study - Mark Vorreuter

Kathleen McCormick '16 and Alexandra Holmes '16 invite students to join the journaling study - Mark Vorreuter

Guided by  human development undergraduates Alexandra Holmes '16 and Kathleen McCormick '16, campers reflected on puberty in the "Writing about Life Changes" study led by Jane Mendle, assistant professor of human development.

Following a successful pilot study last summer, Mendle is again partnering with camp director Tim Davis to study the health benefits of writing about teen transitions.

“The 4-H program has always had a wonderful connection with the university,” says Davis, interim executive director and 4-H program leader of Cornell Cooperative Extension in Ontario County.

“There is a real emphasis on how the camp experience will develop the whole child, and if there is a good fit between faculty and our priority areas – healthy living, STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math), or workforce development – we’re very open to discussing partnerships.”

Lindsay Dower ’17 guides students in a nutrition game – Mark Vorreuter

Lindsay Dower ’17 guides students in a nutrition game – Mark Vorreuter

Indeed, 4-H Camp Bristol Hills is becoming a prime spot for Cornell professors and students to pursue research and outreach projects. Along with Mendle’s study this summer, the camp hosted the “Health and Brain Neuroscience Outreach” project by Valerie Reyna, professor of human development. Lindsay Dower '17, an undergraduate in human development, engaged campers in learning about neuroscience, genetics and nutrition through interactive games and bottom-line messages about health designed to help young people make healthy choices.

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