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Cognitive and Neurobiological Approaches to Plasticity

Cognitive & Neurobiological Approaches to Plasticity

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Kansas State University
Department of Psychological Sciences
492 Bluemont Hall
1114 Mid-Campus Drive
Manhattan,KS 66506
Phone: (785) 532-6850

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Research Projects

Heather BaileyPlasticity in Aging and Memory for Everyday Activities

Heather Bailey, Ph.D.
Associate Professor, Department of Psychological Sciences

As we age, cognitive abilities such as working memory and episodic memory decline, but semantic knowledge remains intact. Dr. Heather Bailey's project will test whether older adults can leverage their intact semantic knowledge to offset the declines in working memory and episodic memory, with the research informed by Event Segmentation Theory. The proposed studies will assess whether semantic knowledge improves how everyday activities are encoded. Aim 1 will determine whether the role of knowledge during event encoding changes with age. Aim 2 will evaluate the efficacy of a knowledge-based intervention for improving event encoding and everyday memory. The project will use an innovative combination of behavioral, oculomotor, and neuroimaging measures of event encoding to address these aims. At the cognitive level, the project will assess how older adults learn to use compensatory strategies to improve everyday memory.  At the neurophysiological level, this project will assess plasticity in terms of how brain function changes in response to activating prior knowledge.

Mentors: Drs. Jeffrey Zacks  (Washington University, St. Louis) and Lester Loschky (K-State)



Mary CainRearing-Induced Plasticity and Incentive Motivation for Ethanol

Mary Cain, Ph.D.
Professor, Department of Psychological Sciences

The overarching goal of this project is to determine if differential rearing-induced plasticity in neuronal microstructure, measured by Diffusion Tensor Imaging (DTI), affects both the hedonic value and the incentive salience for ethanol in adulthood. Rearing rats in an enriched environment should decrease hedonic responses to ethanol compared to rearing rats in isolated or standard environments. In addition, differential rearing during intermittent adolescent ethanol exposure should alter the hedonic value and incentive salience for ethanol through alterations of neuronal microstructure in adulthood. Completion of the project will result in the development of a preclinical model system to test the ability of environmental conditions during adolescent ethanol exposure to either protect against (enrichment) or augment (isolation) the behavioral and neuronal effects of adolescent ethanol exposure in adulthood. 

Mentors: Drs. Stephen Kiefer (K-State) and Stefan Bossman (Univ of Kansas Medical Center)




Thomas MuellerNeural Circuits of Reward and Drug-Seeking Behavior in Zebrafish

Thomas Mueller, Ph.D.
Research Assistant Professor, Division of Biology

To examine how opioids affect brain plasticity, the project uses zebrafish in conjunction with powerful volumetric (3D) imaging approaches as well as molecular profiling and gene expression analyses. The overarching goal of the study is to develop a network model of those neural systems that control reward-seeking and motivated behaviors in zebrafish. To dissect these circuits and understand how opiods affect the plasticity of the brain, the two aims of the project combine powerful imaging technologies with behavioral experiments, neural activity readouts, tract tracing, and molecular and gene expression analyses in zebrafish. The results of the project will lead to a comprehensive network model of reward and decision-making circuitry critical for using zebrafish as a model for addiction. Ultimately, the project will identify how opioid use affect brain plasticity across levels of organization.

Mentors: Drs. Stefan Bossmann (Univ of Kansas Medical Center) and Thomas Finger (University of Colorado-Denver)



Previous Projects

Charles PickensPlasticity in Flexible Goal-Directed Action

Charles Pickens, Ph.D.
Associate Professor, Department of Psychological Sciences

Flexible decision-making is important for adapting to changing demands and circumstances in the world. The devaluation task is used to investigate the neuronal substrates of flexible decision-making. Aim 1 of Dr. Charles Pickens' project was to validate a devaluation task that more closely resembles human decision-making to ensure that it is sensitive to inactivation of three key brain areas involved in flexible decision-making in humans, the basolateral amygdala (BLA), mediodorsal thalamus (MD) and orbitofrontal cortex (OFC). Aim 2 determined whether interactions between these brain areas are necessary, by determining the effects of disconnecting (using DREADDs) either of the other brain areas from MD on behavior in the devaluation task. Aim 3 determined whether these brains areas communicate with one another through direct projections by combining retrograde tracer injections into OFC with the neuronal activity marker Fos after a devaluation test. This will determine if the neurons in BLA and MD that project to OFC are the same neurons that are active during a devaluation test. The effects of disrupting BLA function on communication between MD and OFC was also investigated.

Mentors: Drs. Andrew Holmes (National Institutes of Health) and Yavin Shaham (National Institute on Drug Abuse)



Rui NiNeuronal Plasticity of Older Adults: Perceptual Learning in Driving-Related Visual Functions

Rui Ni, Ph.D.
Associate Professor, Department of Psychology, Wichita State University

Age-related decline in visual functions is a contributing factor to increased accident risks among older drivers. This project examined the effect of perceptual learning (PL) on improving driving-related visual functions and driving performance for older adults. Specifically, the project tested a novel Common Low-level Mechanism (CLM) model of perceptual learning in explaining and predicting the generalization of PL. The results from preliminary studies have provided evidence supporting the CLM model. In the proposed research, Specific aim 1 is to tested the PL transfer from low to high level visual tasks. Aim 2 will determined whether PL transfer depends on training task or training context. Aim 3 will applied the CLM model to improve driving performance for older drivers. The project integrated theoretical and applied research in answering important questions regarding neuronal plasticity, driving safety and aging. Results revealed the mechanisms underlying the generalization of PL to help develop practical guidelines for interventions on how to reduce accident risks among older drivers.

Mentors: Drs. Alex Chaparro (Embry-Riddle Aeronautical Univ.) and George Anderson (University of California, Riverside)