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Research in our lab is focused on understanding the links between brain development and behavior during adolescence. We are interested in what parts of the brain contribute to risky decision making and behavior (e.g., choosing to experiment with drugs). We are also very interested in how certain parts of the brain are affected by smoking cigarettes and may contribute to nicotine dependence.
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The complex construct of ‘risk taking’ is predicated on suboptimal decision-making, particularly in the context of salient rewards. Decision-making is often considered to be comprised of constituent processes, including 1) evaluating and forming preferences of available options, 2) holding internal representations of options and possible outcomes in working memory, 3) selecting one option while inhibiting competing alternatives, 4) anticipating the outcome, and 5) receiving/evaluating the outcome.
Research in the DCNA laboratory, directed by Dr. Charles Geier, aims to characterize developmental change in basic affective and cognitive brain mechanisms that underlie these components of decision-making in adolescence. In particular, we are interested in understanding brain systems that mediate anticipatory and consummatory (outcome) responses to incentives (rewards, losses) and how these relate to the development of cognitive control, including inhibitory control and working memory. We are also keenly interested in how risky behaviors, such as cigarette smoking, might be more rewarding to adolescents than adults and how this, in combination with limitations in cognitive control, might lead to initial experimentation with the drug and dependence. The conceptual model that guides much of our research is that it is the interaction between incentive (reward, punishment) processing and basic cognitive control abilities, both of which are still maturing in adolescence, that sets the stage for (suboptimal) decision making and risk taking, including substance use.
In our studies, we utilize convergent evidence collected from behavioral and cognitive neuroscience methodologies. Specifically, we use oculomotor (eye movement) paradigms with added cognitive demands to investigate developmental changes in higher-order voluntary behavior. Two primary oculomotor tasks used in our work are the antisaccade (AS) task and the oculomotor delayed response (ODR) task (also referred to as the memory-guided saccade task). To examine the underlying neural circuitry supporting behavior on these tasks, we use fast (rapid), event-related functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) techniques. This tool allows for the simultaneous characterization of developmental differences in widely distributed brain systems. We are particularly interested in estimating and comparing the shapes of hemodynamic time courses across age groups and conditions. A major benefit of this approach is the ability to identify both developmental similarities and differences in functional brain networks.