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.

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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.

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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.

Related Information

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.

Two neuroscientists join Human Development’s faculty

 

DeRosa

DeRosa

Last fall, the department of Human Development welcomed two more neuroscience researchers, husband and wife Adam Anderson and Eve DeRosa, from the University of Toronto. Eve De Rosa is associate professor in the department of human development and Rebecca Q. and James C. Morgan Sesquicentennial Faculty Fellow. DeRosa’s research focuses on the neurochemistry of cognitive processes such as learning, attention, and memory. She takes a comparative cognitive neuroscience approach, employing neuroimaging and behavioral measures in humans and additional measures in rodents, to gain deeper insights into how human behavior and the underlying neurochemistry changes with age.

 

Anderson 110x150

Anderson

Adam Anderson is associate professor in the department of human development. His research explores the psychological and neural underpinnings of emotions—what they are, how they are generated in the brain, and how we regulate them. Although much of psychology focuses on understanding and treating disorders, Anderson is interested in human flourishing and the nature of happiness—what it is and its function and adaptive value. His research considers all emotions as evolutionarily selected biological adaptations, having their own rationality intended to help us navigate the physical and social environment.

Book debuts brain models of risky decision-making

By Karene Booker
Reprinted from Cornell Chronicle, December 10, 2013

NeuroRisky12-9Risky choices – about sex, drugs and drinking, as well as diet, exercise, money and health care – pervade our lives and can have dire consequences. Now, a new book aims to help us understand the neural roots of bad decisions. “The Neuroscience of Risky Decision Making” (APA Books) synthesizes the research in this relatively young field for the first time, and introduces new models of brain function to explain and predict risky behavior.

“The harm caused by risky decision-making is enormous – understanding how the brain processes risks and rewards is the key to unraveling the mystery of irrational decision-making in real life,” said Valerie Reyna, professor of human development, director of the Human Neuroscience Institute in the College of Human Ecology and co-director of the Cornell MRI Facility.

“We anticipate this work will transform the next phase of research in the field and inform policy and practice innovations that can save lives and improve health and well-being,” said Reyna, who co-edited the volume with Vivian Zayas, associate professor of psychology at Cornell.

In the book, leading neuroeconomists, neuroscientists and social scientists discuss recent findings on why people take risks and how risky choices shift in different circumstances and across the life span.

An initial chapter by Reyna and Scott A. Huettel, neuroscientist at Duke University, sums up the research on how the brain responds during risky decision-making and introduces a new theoretical framework for explaining the mechanisms that drive behavior. The chapters that follow cover such topics as how risky decision-making changes dramatically from childhood to adolescence as a function of age-related changes in brain structure; the role of emotional regulation, self-control and personality differences in risky choices; and the social, cognitive and biological factors that shape risky behavior. The final chapter presents evidence for a new “triple” process model of how rewards and losses are evaluated in the brain, potentially resolving conflicts between current single and dual system theories.

The book is intended for researchers, students and professionals in the fields of social, cognitive and affective neuroscience; psychology; economics; law and public health.

This volume is part of the American Psychological Association’s Bronfenbrenner Series on the Ecology of Human Development, affiliated with the Bronfenbrenner Center for Translational Research, with authoritative contributions from leading experts in the field.

Reyna will discuss her new book in a “Chats in the Stacks” book talk Feb. 10 at noon in 160 Mann Library.

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