Reminiscing can help, not hinder, some mind-bending tasks

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:

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Nathan Spreng
College of Human Ecology

Training Days

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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Study cracks brain’s emotional code

By Karene Booker
Reprinted from Cornell Chronicle, July 9, 2014

 An illustration of the brain turns feelings and perceptions into a similar code. The color/object gradient represents valence (blue is bad, red is good) - Adam Anderson, Junichi Chikazoe

An illustration of the brain turns feelings and perceptions into a similar code. The color/object gradient represents valence (blue is bad, red is good) – Adam Anderson, Junichi Chikazoe

Although feelings are personal and subjective, the human brain turns them into a standard code that objectively represents emotions across different senses, situations and even people, reports a new study by Cornell neuroscientist Adam Anderson.

“We discovered that fine-grained patterns of neural activity within the orbitofrontal cortex, an area of the brain associated with emotional processing, act as a neural code which captures an individual’s subjective feeling,” says Anderson, associate professor of human development in Cornell’s College of Human Ecology and senior author of the study, “Population coding of affect across stimuli, modalities and individuals,” published online June 22 in Nature Neuroscience.

Their findings provide insight into how the brain represents our innermost feelings – what Anderson calls the last frontier of neuroscience – and upend the long-held view that emotion is represented in the brain simply by activation in specialized regions for positive or negative feelings, he says.

“If you and I derive similar pleasure from sipping a fine wine or watching the sun set, our results suggest it is because we share similar fine-grained patterns of activity in the orbitofrontal cortex,” Anderson says.

“It appears that the human brain generates a special code for the entire valence spectrum of pleasant-to-unpleasant, good-to-bad feelings, which can be read like a ‘neural valence meter’ in which the leaning of a population of neurons in one direction equals positive feeling and the leaning in the other direction equals negative feeling,” Anderson explains.

For the study, the researchers presented 16 participants with a series of pictures and tastes during functional neuroimaging, then analyzed participants’ ratings of their subjective experiences along with their brain activation patterns. To crack the brain’s emotional code and understand how external events come to be represented in the brain as internal feelings, the researchers used a neuroimaging approach called representational similarity analysis to analyze spatial patterns of brain activity across populations of neurons rather than the traditional approach of assessing activation magnitude in specialized regions.

Anderson’s team found that valence was represented as sensory-specific patterns or codes in areas of the brain associated with vision and taste, as well as sensory-independent codes in the orbitofrontal cortices (OFC), suggesting, the authors say, that representation of our internal subjective experience is not confined to specialized emotional centers, but may be central to perception of sensory experience.

They also discovered that similar subjective feelings – whether evoked from the eye or tongue – resulted in a similar pattern of activity in the OFC, suggesting the brain contains an emotion code common across distinct experiences of pleasure (or displeasure), they say. Furthermore, these OFC activity patterns of positive and negative experiences were partly shared across people.

“Despite how personal our feelings feel, the evidence suggests our brains use a standard code to speak the same emotional language,” Anderson concludes.

The study was funded in part by a postdoctoral fellowship from the Japan Society for the Promotion of Science and was co-authored by Junichi Chikazoe, postdoctoral associate in human development at Cornell; Daniel H. Lee, University of Toronto; and Nikolaus Kriegeskorte, University of Cambridge.

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

Related Links:
College of Human Ecology
Adam Anderson
The Paper

Book examines hows and whys of economic choices

By Karene Booker
Reprinted from Cornell Chronicle, July 17, 2014

Neuroeconomics-book-cover7-17Valerie Reyna, professor of human development in Cornell’s College of Human Ecology, and graduate student Evan Wilhelms are editors of a new book: “Neuroeconomics, Judgment and Decision Making” (Taylor & Francis).

Drawing on perspectives from the early roots of psychology through the latest neuroscience, the book introduces what we know about how and why people make decisions with economic consequences (e.g., saving money, donating to charity, choosing medical treatment). The volume, written by leading neuroeconomists, neuroscientists and social scientists, answers broad questions about the ways developmental, neurological and individual differences influence our choices; whether deciding quickly is good or bad; whether emotional reactions lead us astray or help; how decision processes change over the lifespan; and the nature of expertise.

“Ours is one of the few books on neuroeconomics, the relatively new field that looks at the biological origins of economic decisions and economic behavior in the brain,” says Reyna.

“The cutting-edge research featured in the book holds promise for improving practice in law, management, marketing, computer science and health care,” she says.

“Understanding how people process numerical information about risks and then make decisions based on this information, for example, will boost efforts to help patients make informed health care decisions and freely decide between treatment options,” she explains.

Reyna and her research team contributed two chapters, combining recent discoveries in neuroscience with Reyna’s “fuzzy-trace theory,” which proposes people represent information both as bottom-line gist meaning and as literal facts, but tend to rely on the simplest gist necessary when making decisions. They show that this reliance on gist representations is beneficial for making choices, helping people accurately predict how they will feel in the future about the outcomes of various decisions. Their next chapter discusses the processes underlying inconsistent or so-called “irrational” choices and sheds light on ways of improving judgments and decisions.

The book is an introduction to decision-making intended for researchers, students and professionals in the fields of neuroscience, psychology, economics, business and public health. Preparation of the book was supported in part by the National Institutes of Health, National Cancer Institute and National Institute of Nursing Research.

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

Related Links:
College of Human Ecology
Valerie Reyna
The book

 

Expressions of fear and disgust aided human survival, study says

 

Why do our eyes open wide when we feel fear or narrow to slits when we express disgust? According to new research, it has to do with survival.

Cornell neuroscientist Adam Anderson and colleagues concluded that expressions of fear and disgust altered the way human eyes gather and focus light.

They argued that these changes were the result of evolutionary development and were intended to help humans survive, or at least detect, very different threats. Read more

The aging brain network

 

Breakthroughs in how we understand the human brain’s structure and internal communication networks are helping scientists track neurological changes over time.

Nathan Spreng, assistant professor at Cornell University’s Department of Human Development, is using advancement in neuroimaging to better understand how the brain functions and changes as we age. His research currently focuses on large scale brain dynamics and their function in cognition.

One of the most exciting frontiers in this regard is the reconceptualization of the brain as a complex system of many large and constantly interacting networks of brain regions. Read more

Study: Facial expressions evolved from optical needs

By Ted Boscia
Reprinted from Cornell Chronicle, March 20, 2014

Why do we become saucer-eyed when afraid and taper our eyelids to slits when disgusted?


These near-opposite facial expressions are rooted in emotional responses that exploit how our eyes gather and focus light to detect an unknown threat, found a study by a Cornell neuroscientist. In fear, our eyes widen, boosting sensitivity and expanding our field of vision to locate surrounding danger. When repulsed, our eyes narrow, blocking light to sharpen focus and pinpoint the source of our disgust.

The findings by Adam Anderson, associate professor of human development in Cornell’s College of Human Ecology, suggest that human facial expressions arose from universal, adaptive reactions to environmental stimuli and not originally as social communication signals, lending support to Charles Darwin’s 19th-century theories on the evolution of emotion.

“These opposing functions of eye widening and narrowing, which mirror that of pupil dilation and constriction, might be the primitive origins for the expressive capacity of the face,” Anderson said. “And these actions are not likely restricted to disgust and fear, as we know that these movements play a large part in how, perhaps, all expressions differ, including surprise, anger and even happiness.”

 These are modeled expressions for fear, disgust and average (average of all expressions, so it's not technically "neutral"). - provided

These are modeled expressions for fear, disgust and average (average of all expressions, so it’s not technically “neutral”). – provided

Anderson and co-authors described these ideas in the paper, “Optical Origins of Opposing Facial Expression Actions,” published in the March issue of Psychological Science.

For the experiment, Anderson, with collaborators at the University of Toronto and the University of Waterloo, used standard optometric measures to gauge how light reached the retina as study participants made fearful, disgusted and neutral expressions. Looks of disgust resulted in the greatest visual acuity – less light and better focus; fearful expressions induced maximum sensitivity – more light and a broader visual field.

“These emotions trigger facial expressions that are very far apart structurally, one with eyes wide open and the other with eyes pinched,” said Anderson, the paper’s senior author. “The reason for that is to allow the eye to harness the properties of light that are most useful in these situations.”

What’s more, the paper notes, emotions filter our reality, shaping what we see before light ever reaches the inner eye.

“We tend to think of perception as something that happens after an image is received by the brain,” Anderson said. “But, in fact, emotions influence vision at the very earliest moments of visual encoding.”

Essentially, our eyes are miniature cameras, constructed millennia before humans understood optics, said lead author Daniel Lee, Ph.D. student at the University of Toronto, where Anderson previously taught.

“As automatic actions accompanying our emotions, it means that Mother Nature had solved and programmed within us this fundamental optical principle,” Lee added.

Anderson’s Affect and Cognition Laboratory is now studying how these contrasting eye movements may account for how facial expressions have developed to support nonverbal communication across cultures.

“We are seeking to understand how these expressions have come to communicate emotions to others,” he said. “We know that the eyes can be a powerful basis for reading what people are thinking and feeling, and we might have a partial answer to why that is.”

Ted Boscia is director of communications and media for the College of Human Ecology.

Related Information

Book highlights memory’s role as social glue

By Karene Booker
Reprinted from Cornell Chronicle, March 3, 2014

Spreng book cover 182X238

Memory’s crucial impact on our ability to establish and maintain social bonds is the focus of a new book, “Examining the Role of Memory in Social Cognition” (Frontiers), edited by Cornell neuroscientist Nathan Spreng.

“The book brings together the first research on the linkages between memory and social behavior, processes traditionally studied separately,” 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.

“Remembering our own past and interpreting other people’s thoughts and feelings both activate similar neural pathways in the brain – a connection that may help us translate our personal experience into understanding others and navigating the complex dynamics of human social life,” he said.

Spreng

Spreng

“Discovery of the overlapping brain networks provided a clue about memory’s vital role in social interaction and inspired development of this first book on the topic,” he added.

In the book, neuroscientists and psychologists discuss their latest findings on topics such as how neural networks affect social abilities; how memory influences empathy; how aging affects memory and social abilities; how memory and social abilities are impacted by disorders such as schizophrenia and autism; and how amnesia and other memory impairments affect social abilities.

Intended for researchers and students in the fields of social and cognitive neuroscience, the book is a starting point for a line of cross-disciplinary research that may one day provide insights into how to improve social skills like empathy in healthy and impaired individuals, Spreng said.

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

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New institute focuses on human brain research

By Karene Booker
Reprinted from Cornell Chronicle, February 13, 2014

 Valerie Reyna, director of the new Human Neuroscience Institute and co-director of the Cornell MRI Facility, says that the institute seeks to learn more about healthy development, decision-making, emotional processing, memory and attention, neurodegenerative diseases and developmental disorders. - Mark Vorreuter

Valerie Reyna, director of the new Human Neuroscience Institute and co-director of the Cornell MRI Facility, says that the institute seeks to learn more about healthy development, decision-making, emotional processing, memory and attention, neurodegenerative diseases and developmental disorders. – Mark Vorreuter

The new Human Neuroscience Institute in Cornell’s College of Human Ecology aims to advance research on the neural basis of human behavior.

“Prioritizing the word ‘human’ in the name of the institute underlines the common commitment to human development,” said Valerie Reyna, director of the institute and co-director of the Cornell MRI Facility. The focus of the institute – to better understand how brain systems drive cognition and behavior – has broad implications for enabling people to lead happier and more fulfilling lives, she said.

Cornell scientists can now observe on campus which areas of the brain fire when we think, react and decide, thanks to a 3-tesla MRI machine in the Cornell MRI Facility in Martha Van Rensselaer Hall that has been in place since 2012. Ready access to functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) gives researchers more power to ask novel questions and test psychological and behavioral science theories with new data, said Reyna, professor of human development. She is leading the first National Institutes of Health-funded study in the facility: A team of economists, psychologists and neuroscientists are using the tool to better understand how teens and adults process emotions, gauge risks and make decisions.

“A lot of psychology traditionally relies on self-report,” Reyna explained. “With the advent of fMRI, brain scan data can be integrated with other data – behavioral, social and ecological – to shed light on the mechanisms driving behavior. We can look at the brain from the micro neurochemistry level to the macro social level, bringing basic research to bear on important human problems.”

But to conduct human neuroscience research and extract meaningful data from the images, far more than an accessible MRI machine is required, Reyna said.

So the new institute is developing other essential research services and tools – such as powerful computing – with a core group of neuroscientists in the Department of Human Development whose aim is to facilitate research, education and outreach in human neuroscience and, ultimately, to inform interventions that improve health and well-being.

The institute’s faculty affiliates are: Adam Anderson, Charles Brainerd, Eve De Rosa and Nathan Spreng. Anderson, associate professor, explores the psychological and neural underpinnings of emotions – what they are, how they are generated in the brain, and how we regulate them. Brainerd, professor, examines how normal aging and disease affect cognitive processes, focusing on factors associated with brain atrophy and memory decline in mild cognitive impairment and dementia. De Rosa, associate professor, uses neuroimaging and behavioral measures in humans and additional measures in rats to study learning and attention, with a focus on the role of the neurochemical acetylcholine. Spreng, assistant professor, uses fMRI to study large-scale brain networks, how these systems interact to support complex cognition and how patterns of brain activity change with advancing age.

Each of these scientists works at the frontiers of basic science, Reyna noted, but they also translate fundamental discoveries about brain function into ways to improve human well-being across the lifespan.

The nuts and bolts of MRI technology

The key advantage of magnetic resonance imaging is that it allows researchers to see inside living tissues, providing detailed pictures of internal structures without using invasive procedures or ionizing radiation. An array of specialized techniques allows scientists to visualize blood flow, the movement of water, the presence and concentration of various organic molecules, moving tissue in real time, and more.

The core of a magnetic resonance imaging machine is made up of coils of wire though which electricity is passed to create a magnetic field, which aligns the spins of hydrogen protons in the water abundant in living things, including humans.

A coil fit specifically for the body part being imaged transmits pulses of radiofrequency waves, causing some of the hydrogen protons to absorb the energy and temporarily change their spins. When the pulse is turned off, they return to their prior state, giving off an energy signal that the coils detect and send to the MRI computer. During imaging, additional small gradient magnetic fields encode this signal with spatial location. A map of the internal tissues can be reconstructed from the signal since protons in different tissues return to equilibrium at different rates.

To visualize neural activity in the brain, researchers often use functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), which generates images of brain activity in response to performing different tasks.

The most common fMRI method detects changes in blood flow when activated areas of the brain are recharged by fresh blood rich in oxygen and glucose. Oxygen-rich blood has different magnetic properties than oxygen-poor blood, and these differences can be measured and mapped to provide a picture of brain activity. The resulting images require complex processing and statistical analyses to extract meaningful data – the work of computing resources connected to the MRI machine.

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

Related Information

New project aims to engage youth in neuroscience

By Karene Booker

Deana Blansky leading a session for young adolescents on health and fitness - Mark Vorreuter

Deana Blansky leading a session for young adolescents on health and fitness – Mark Vorreuter

Last year Deanna Blansky ’16 jumped into a new initiative to translate faculty research into hands-on activities for teaching middle-school youth about the brain, health, and science. The initiative aims to develop a six-hour 4-H STEM curriculum on health and the brain and is led by Valerie Reyna, professor and director of the Human Neuroscience Institute in the Department of Human Development, and co-director of the Cornell MRI Facility.

To start, Blansky, a Human Biology, Health, and Society major, developed two modules, one on nutrition and fitness and another on breast cancer genetics, based on Reyna’s ongoing research.  She piloted these modules with middle school campers at Bristol Hills 4-H Camp in Canandaigua, New York as part of her summer Cornell Cooperative Extension internship. Both modules combined aspects of health and neuroscience, while providing an interactive learning experience for the campers.

The campers particularly liked the hands-on lessons, such as competing in the nutritional breakfast cook-off and creating model brains they could keep, Blansky said. They had fun comparing breakfast ideas and seemed surprised by how easy it was to create their own healthy meals. They were eager to take their ideas back home, she said.

The combination of outreach through teaching at summer camp and empirical neuroscience research was really rewarding, Blansky concluded. What she learned about the research process, curriculum development and lesson planning for different age groups will come in handy – she is planning on entering the field of medicine and public health, and hopes to incorporate community health into her future career.

This year, Noah Rubin ’16 will be refining the two modules and developing new segments. Rubin is majoring in Policy Analysis and Management and minoring in Computer Science and Math. He joined Reyna’s Laboratory of Rational Decision Making propelled by an interest in human behavior and the neuroscience behind it. An interest, he says, that was sparked in high school after reading a story about a man who had developed software that predicted investing behavior based on reactions to current events.

The new and revised modules will be piloted with youth this summer, with the plan of eventually making them more broadly available.