Rebecca Gordon ’06 and her thesis advisor, John Seamon, professor of
psychology, professor of neuroscience and behavior, pose with brain scans used in
a recent study.
Now That's Using Your Head: Student, Professor Collaborate on Brain
For psychology major Rebecca Gordon’ 06,
developing a research project idea was practically a no-brainer. Well,
except for the fact that she had to study brains.
By examining functional magnetic resonance images, known as fMRIs, Rebecca
Gordon ’06 was able to see how the brain reacted on a cognitive and
emotional level with healthy subjects and subjects diagnosed with
Her study “The Mere Exposure Effect and Schizophrenia: An fMRI Study” was
completed April 11 after nine months of research. The “mere exposure effect”
is a psychological way of saying people express likeness for things merely
because they are familiar with them.
"There have been no published fMRI studies of the mere exposure effect so I
wanted to do a study that would contribute something new and important to
several fields of psychology,” says Gordon, who will graduate this year with
a dual degree in psychology and music.
Gordon, whose father is a clinical psychologist, coordinated her own
research projects throughout high school including working with Parkinson
Disease patients at a lab in New York. During her first year at Wesleyan,
Gordon excelled in Psychology 101, taught by John Seamon, professor of
psychology, professor of neuroscience and behavior.
Knowing that his student already had research experience, Seamon suggested
that she follow up on procedures he and other students conducted in the
1980s and 1990s on explicit and implicit memory. Explicit memory is a form
of memory that involves conscious retrieval of past events; implicit memory
is a nonconscious retrieval of past events.
“I encourage students who do well in my classes to get involved in research,
either in my own lab or with others in psychology, and Rebecca was one of
those special students,” says Seamon, who became Gordon’s thesis advisor on
Gordon, who was working at the Olin Neuropsychiatry Research Center at the
Institute of Living in Hartford last summer, had access to fMRI technology.
Seamon suggested that she look for brain differences in explicit and
implicit memory by measuring blood flow changes using the fMRI scanner.
Since July 2005, Gordon has spent her summer, winter and spring breaks
immersed in conducting research, as well two to three days a week during the
school year. She continually sought research advice from Seamon and
technical advice from Godfrey Pearlson, director of the Neuropsychiatry
Research Center and professor of psychiatry at Yale University.
By studying patients at the center in Hartford, she was able to perform two
tests on 10 healthy control subjects and 10 schizophrenia patients. The
subjects were placed inside the fMRI scanner during the study so she could
monitor their brain activity.
Using an assessment method called the recognition memory test to measure
explicit memory, Gordon projected a series of novel objects, each for a few
seconds. Subjects were then asked to answer the question: “Is this a
possible or impossible object?” After viewing these novel objects several
times and recording the decisions, Gordon collected her results. She then
resented pairs of objects, one old and one new, and asked the subjects to
select the object in each pair that they previously viewed. When she
analyzed the neurological activity during this explicit recognition test,
she found memory accuracy was correlated with activation of the hippocampus,
the part of the brain used for new learning.
In another test, called the affective preference test, Gordon measured
implicit memory by asking the subjects which shape they preferred without
asking them which one they remembered. During this test she found that there
was still hippocampus activity along with a strong response from the
amygdala, the almond-shaped neural structure in the brain that processes
Gordon and Seamon were thrilled with the new discovery.
“This is a remarkable achievement for an undergraduate to go from a
discussion with her advisor, take an idea and turn it into a tangible
experiment that she then performed over a period of months, learn about this
state of the art technology, collect and analyze data with technical help
from the staff at the Institute of Living and produce new and interesting
findings,” Seamon says.
Gordon’s report was submitted for partial fulfillment of the requirements
for the bachelor’s of arts degree with departmental honors in psychology.
She hopes to get her study published in a professional psychology journal.
In addition, she will present her study during the Psychology Department
Poster Session April 18.
"I can't believe that even as I got to the very end of my project, I never
got tired of it. I was always excited about the idea of finding something
completely new," she says, holding two gray brain scans, speckled with
colors. The colors illustrate where in the brain activity was happening
during the subjects’ tasks.
Gordon will return to the Institute of Living this summer for continued
research, this time focusing on autistic children and people diagnosed with
schizophrenia and bipolar disorder. Next fall, she will begin graduate
school at Yeshiva University in New York where she plans to continue her
studies in psychology.
|By Olivia Bartlett,
Wesleyan Connection editor