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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.

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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

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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

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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.

Read the full story

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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

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Neuroeconomics-book-cover7-17By Karene Booker
Reprinted from Cornell Chronicle, July 17, 2014
Valerie 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

 

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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

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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