2015 SEED GRANT AWARDS

RESEARCH PROJECT: Supporting Just Drug Policies through Neuroscience and Narrative
INVESTIGATORS: Geraldine Downey, PhD, Professor, Department of of Psychology; Director, Center for Justice
Carl Hart, PhD, Associate Professor, Departments of Psychology and Psychiatry, Columbia University and New York State Psychiatric Institute
Frances Negron-Mutaner, PhD, Associate Professor, Department of English and Comparative Literature; Director, Media and Idea Lab; Director, Center for Ethnicity and Race
DESCRIPTION: The U.S. has the largest incarcerated population in the world with 2.3 million people currently in jails and prisons and many millions more on parole or probation or with a criminal record that hobbles opportunities for civic engagement. There is now increased recognition of the personal, community and societal costs of incarceration, especially to African American men. One in three black boys born today will spend time in prison if we, in the U.S., do not change our course of action. The gravity of this situation contributed to Attorney General Eric Holder’s unprecedented remarks about mass incarceration, which he described as “a kind of decimation of certain communities, in particular communities of color.” The proposed collaboration at the intersection of neuroscience, social science and the arts and humanities will provide an evidence-based approach aimed at understanding how findings from neuroscience can be appropriately and effectively communicated to reduce our society’s impulse to incarcerate and instead develop alternative actions that benefit the larger society. Our initial focus is on the link between neuroscience and the way in which drug policies have contributed in a racially discriminatory way to mass incarceration.
RESEARCH PROJECT: Attention and Decisions: Determinants of Attention and Information Seeking in Human Economic Choice
INVESTIGATORS: Jacqueline Gottlieb, PhD, Associate Professor Department of Neuroscience, Columbia College of Physicians and Surgeons
Michael Woodford, PhD, John Bates Clark Professor of Political Economy, Department of Economics
DESCRIPTION: The experiments we propose represent a new collaborative effort to address a question that has fundamental importance but has been little investigated in both fields: how do individuals actively sample information and how is sampling coordinated with a broader task? While it is widely recognized in both neuroscience and the social sciences, that decision makers must sample information to guide their future actions, information processing has been typically investigated as a passive process with less appreciation of its active features. In experimental paradigms in either discipline, subjects are usually given the opportunity to process information (i.e., remember, discriminate or act based on it) but are rarely allowed to decide which source of information to sample. And yet such decisions are commonplace in natural behavior and critical determinants of our beliefs and actions. When we cross an intersection we would act very differently if we looked at the traffic light rather than a cloud, and when we make investment decisions we may reach very different conclusions depending on which indicators we sample. It is therefore vitally important for both neuroscience and economics to understand how our brains make information sampling decisions. How do we actively filter information through selective attention and how is this filtering coordinated with the broader task? Our goal is to build a new empirical and theoretical framework for addressing this question that has relevance for both psychology/neuroscience and economics/social sciences. The findings will be highly significant for neuroscience because they probe the relation between attention and decisions – two major cognitive processes that have been studied separately. They will be highly significant for economics, because they offer the prospect of an extension of standard economic theory to allow for an additional dimension of sampling information. Thus, an understanding of active information sampling can build very significant new bridges between the two fields.The experiments proposed for the first year examine how attention and information sampling are shaped by the statistics of reward distributions, including expected value, uncertainty, and skew. While being conceptually innovative, the studies are rooted in traditional methodologies and capitalize on the longstanding expertise of the investigators in their respective domains.

RESEARCH PROJECT: Socioeconomic Disparities in Cognitive and Brain Development During the First Year of Life
INVESTIGATORS: Kimberly Noble, MD, PhD, Associate Professor of Neuroscience and Education, Teachers College
Jane Waldfogel, PhD, Compton Foundation Centennial Professor, School of Social Work; Co-Director, Columbia Population Research Center
William Fifer, PhD, Professor, Pediatrics and Psychiatry, Columbia College of Physicians and Surgeons
DESCRIPTION: Socioeconomic (SES) disparities are associated with large differences in children’s cognitive development and academic achievement. However, until recently, the study of SES disparities in child development operated with virtually no input from neuroscience. We propose to recruit a socioeconomically diverse cohort of families with young children, and systematically measure SES, proximal mediators, brain function, and cognition in the first year of life. In this way, we will provide preliminary data addressing the following questions: (1) How quickly in infancy do SES-related differences in cognitive and brain development emerge? And (2) what are the modifiable environmental factors by which SES disparities operate, such as the home language environment or maternal stress? The core contribution of this interdisciplinary, collaborative effort would be to marry the sophisticated knowledge of brain function from neuroscience with the sophisticated conceptual and empirical understanding of socioeconomic status from the social sciences.
RESEARCH PROJECT: Aging in the Brain and the Brain in Aging Societies: The Role and Function of Culture, Cognition and History among Older Adult Populations
INVESTIGATORS: Kavita Sivaramakrishnan, PhD,  Assistant Professor, Department of Sociomedical Sciences, Mailman School of Public Health; Affiliated Faculty in the Department of History, Columbia University
Jennifer Manly, PhD, Associate Professor of Neuropsychology, G.H. Sergievsky Center, Columbia College of Physicians and Surgeons
DESCRIPTION: Even though the neurosciences have been a rapidly growing field for the past decades, it is only recently that researchers in the humanities have become engaged in debates regarding how social status, cultural context and historical change over time can shape brain cognition, and its plasticity or decline and also the making of knowledge and expertise in the neurosciences. However, an understanding of social interactions and external events on neurological development continues to be a relatively undeveloped area of research so far. As population aging becomes pervasive in developed and developing countries, studies of cognition and research on aging related diseases and decline become crucial to understand and manage functional aging to help promote longer and also more satisfying lives among older populations both in the West and in industrializing countries. Global aging however also poses significant issues regarding how neuroscience, its categories and tools can be applied across contexts and diverse populations. Most studies of plasticity or cognitive impairment have been based on educated, western populations; and cross-­‐cultural investigations, and the importance of life experiences over time have not been sufficiently understood among aging groups.In our project, we aim to undertake a qualitative review in two low and middle income countries, India and South Africa where neurological research on diseases of aging and cognition impairment have been newly initiated among older populations, and where the investigators have existing partners; to inquire (1) how cognition decline or plasticity are defined or categorized among populations that are socioeconomically deprived and have lower levels of literacy in this literature, and the challenges in translating these categories and questions across cultures from developed countries to developing societies; (2) what has been the institutional and scientific history of neurological/neuropsychological research expertise relating to aging and cognitive decline in these two settings and how has this shaped or influenced the barriers or perspectives on cognition and its impairment in these two countries; and (3) to review, compare and identify through a qualitative review of screening and diagnostic questionnaires/tests, the barriers in assessing cognitive challenges among these populations since both context, and representations of the self are distinct across settings. The aim would be to scale up this project to understand how far in older adults these differences in cognition in different contexts can be modified, and how they evolve across critical periods and pathways across the lifecourse.

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