Seed Grants for Interdisciplinary Projects in Society and Neuroscience provide funding for faculty-led pilot research and other initiatives at the intersection of neuroscience and the arts, humanities, or the social sciences. For 2021, priority was given to projects that additionally involve empirical research, the collection of data, or the study of evidence or policy related to diversity, equity, and inclusion.
2021 Seed Grants
- Valerie Purdie-Greenaway, Associate Professor of Psychology, Columbia University
- Jennifer J. Manly, Professor of Neuropsychology, Columbia University
- Peter Bearman, Jonathan R. Cole Professor of Sociology, Columbia University
- Alfredo Spagna, Lecturer in the Discipline of Psychology, Columbia University
From faculty hiring in colleges and universities, to scientists mentoring the next generation of researchers, to top management teams deciding on their succession plans, creating and sustaining diverse and inclusive policies and programs is critical to addressing societal inequality. Yet, after decades of research, decision-makers lack clarity on what works and how to convince skeptics that “what works” works. Diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives routinely situate some of their central briefings, materials, and arguments in what practitioners imagine are central findings in neuroscience. Each year hundreds and hundreds of organizations and thousands of individuals are “treated” with DEI-inflected neuroscience. To date there has been no systematic investigation of what this neuroscientific evidence is, where it comes from, and how it relates to the field of neuroscience. Moreover, there has been no systematic investigation as to why, when, and how DEI practitioners access neuroscience knowledge to advance DEI-related initiatives. Of special interest is understanding how practitioners come to know about the neuroscience that they then think is relevant. It is this body of work that is the primary focus of our investigation.
This project has four major aims: (1) We will collect, compile, and organize neuroscientific research commonly found in DEI design content and the popular press; (2) We will analyze the structure of scientific knowledge related to DEI neuroscience, comparing neuroscientific evidence that finds its way into DEI content to the structure of the field of neuroscience; (3) We will use interviews to explore why DEI practitioners use neuroscience to advance DEI initiatives. We will also explore stakeholders’ beliefs and assumptions about the utility of neuroscience to generate DEI-related solutions. These stakeholders include neuroscientists who conduct research and science journalists and science writers who translate and popularize research; and, (4) We will begin to build a blueprint of more effective DEI-relevant neuroscience, more rigorous, critical, and informed DEI practitioners and science journalists who are more adept at translating DEI neuroscientific insights by organizing a workshop that brings together each of these stakeholders.
- Katherine Keyes, Associate Professor of Epidemiology, Columbia University
- Amy Margolis, Assistant Professor of Medical Psychology, Columbia University
- David Pagliaccio, Assistant Professor of Clinical Neurobiology, Columbia University
- Tomas Paus, Professor of Psychology and Psychiatry, University of Toronto
- Michael Milham, Vice President of Research and Founding Director, Center for the Developing Brain, Child Mind Institute
Research and breakthrough findings in pediatric neuroimaging are abundant and promise to change our understanding of psychopathological etiology and treatment. The past decade of pediatric neuroscience research has yielded critical insights about the structure of the developing brain and the links between our brains and our behavior. These insights have shed light on how social, emotional, linguistic, and cognitive processes interact and unfold through development. Among these landmark findings is the central role of the social environment in shaping brain development, including the impact of adverse childhood experiences, material and emotional deprivation, nutrition, access to resources, and income inequality. These findings underscore the meaningful role that public health can play in child development, yet there remains much to be learned about when, how, and why these exposures influence child health.
This project aims to bring methodological rigor to the study of social-environmental processes that include child neural, cognitive, and emotional development by incorporating epidemiological techniques, e.g., sampling weights, to harmonize pediatric neuroimaging data. The need for integration between epidemiology and neuroscience is reflected in the emerging field of population neuroscience, which asks us to consider how brain development intersects with macro-, meso-, and individual-level risk factors to use brain science to shape a healthier society. Such a mandate requires a careful assessment of sampling frames and bias that can stain our research findings and waste resources.
2019 Seed Grants
- Darcy Kelley, Harold Weintraub Professor of Biological Sciences, Columbia University
- Ursula Kwong-Brown, Senior Research Staff, Kelley Laboratory, Columbia University
Throughout history, humans have developed tools in order to increase their range of control over their environment for a variety of needs. Tools can facilitate the connection between intention and reality. Tools elevate the abilities of novices and those with physical or other limitations. They can also provide superhuman abilities and new opportunities for creativity and refinement in expert practitioners. Tools are inherently linked to some of the earliest documented evidence of human artistic expression. What connects intention, such as the desire to create art, with the human body’s physical abilities to produce art? What if intentionality were to bypass the limitations of our peripheral nervous system and act directly upon the world around us? What if we could produce art in the form of music without moving a muscle?
Using a new neurotechnology that collects and processes large amounts of electromyography (EMG) data, it is possible to measure tiny signals coming from the peripheral nervous system in real-time. When these motor signals are large enough, they activate muscles to move different parts of our body. The CTRL-labs wristband, developed by recent Columbia University Neuroscience PhD graduates, is a novel, highly-sensitive EMG sensor that can capture these subthreshold signals and reappropriate them for alternative uses. Performing a simple action, such as flexing a finger, activates several motor units (a collection of muscle fibers activated by the same peripheral nerve) within a muscle in the forearm. However, just thinking about moving a finger still activates a few motor units, although the finger won’t actually move. The EMG sensors built into the wristband can track over 100 different motor units at a time and can pick up these subthreshold signals to turn thoughts into actions. This activity is detected by the wristband and reappropriated into discrete electrical signals that can be programmed into a computer interface that can ultimately control anything — from the movement of a hand avatar on a computer screen to the production of sound and light (Melcer, Astolfi, Remaley, Berenzweig, & Giurgica-Tiron, 2018). Effectively, the neural activity directly controls the artistic output, bypassing the physical limitations of the hand.
Darcy Kelley, Harold Weintraub Professor of Biological Sciences, and musician-researcher Ursula Kwong-Brown propose to use this device to create a multimodal instrument that generates and spatializes musical sounds. Over the course of one year, they will develop, program, and pilot the wristband into an interface that can be used to control multiple musical variables (instrument type, ranges of notes, keys, chords, etc.) with limited bodily movement.
This multimodal instrument project will help to establish new connections between neuroscience and electronic music by exploring the boundaries of sensorimotor control of actions created by the brain. A multimodal instrument that harnesses “intentions” to control specific musical outcomes could revolutionize thinking about how mind and thought generate effects on the physical world. By connecting motor neuron activity directly to external actions – bypassing the tendons, fingers, and general physical wiring of the body – an individual could greatly expand his/her capability and talent, from movement to music and beyond. This instrument will not only expand the expressive ability of performers but also allow individuals with limited physical capabilities to better express their artistic visions, thoughts, and emotions.
2017 Seed Grants
- Sylvie Goldman, Assistant Professor of Neuropsychology, Columbia University
- Nim Tottenham, Associate Professor of Psychology, Columbia University
- Michael M. Myers, Professor of Behavioral Biology in Psychiatry & Pediatrics, Columbia University
- Rebecca M. Jordan-Young, Associate Professor, Women’s, Gender, & Sexuality Studies, Barnard College
Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) is a group of neurodevelopmental disorders characterized by early onset of social and communication impairments and repetitive and restricted behaviors. Although the etiology of ASD remains unclear, there is evidence of atypical neuropathology characterized by abnormal development of the limbic system and cerebellum. So far, the diagnosis of autism relies solely on clinical assessment and no specific biomarkers are available. While the skewed male prevalence is relatively consistent across the spectrum, and generally assumed to be biologically based, little focus has been placed on the diagnostic process itself and the role of social factors such as gender behavioral stereotypes. Similarly, sex/gender differences are not considered when making treatment recommendations.
Longitudinal studies emphasize the acquisition of speech as positive predictors for ASD. As such, the majority of interventions designed for these young children target language processing, social communication, and reciprocity. Notably, based on clinical findings and common childhood education practices, many successful interventions in ASD incorporate musical features to foster social responsiveness. Yet, very few studies have studied the neurological underpinnings of speech versus music processing in young children with ASD and the effect on core emotion dysregulation and arousal state.
The aims of this study are twofold, (1) To identify differences in electrocortical (EEG) and autonomic functions (heart rate, vagal tone) between typically developing (TD) children and children with ASD (ages 3 to 5) with regard to speech versus music processing. (2) To examine how these differences are modulated by the sex of the child. The overall goal is to determine if music normalizes EEG and autonomic differences between the groups and whether there are interactions between music and sex/gender in these outcomes. In all, developing EEG, objective, quantifiable, neurophysiological measures of brain responses to social and cognitive inputs will help identify (a) predictors for best outcome and (b) subgroups of young children likely to respond to specific evidence-based treatment while many unsuccessful or minimally efficient treatments are costly to families and society. We will take advantage of Drs. Myers’ and Tottenham’s expertise in developmental neurophysiology and affect processing to analyze group differences and explore how these measures represent potential biomarkers of ASD. Under Dr. Jordan-Young’s guidance, the findings will be also interpreted from a dynamic sex and gender perspective.
- Virginia Rauh, Professor of Population and Family Health, Columbia University Medical Center
- Kimberly Noble, Associate Professor of Neuroscience and Education, Teachers College
- Dan Press, Adjunct Professor in the Center for Study of Ethnicity and Race, Columbia University
Research at Columbia University investigating the impact of childhood adversity on the brain has significant potential to inform public policy and programs designed to ameliorate the health and developmental consequences of early life adversity. In this proposal, we outline a strategy for establishing Columbia University as a leader in promoting New York City as a ‘Trauma-Informed’ city. Our goals are to (1) create an interdisciplinary university-wide collaborative for Columbia University researchers with expertise in child health and neurodevelopment; (2) develop a plan for building capacity in the people, organizations, systems and communities of New York City to more effectively serve children and families impacted by stress and adversity; (3) implement this plan in stages with the involvement of Columbia university faculty, staff and students, using a service learning model; (4) engage with governmental, non-profit and commercial entities in New York City that deliver services and programs serving children and families for the purpose of increasing awareness of trauma-informed services and policies; and (5) obtain external funding to support this city-wide trauma-informed effort going forward.
2016 Seed Grants
- Christopher Blattman, Associate Professor of International and Political Affairs and Political Science, Columbia University
- Johannes Haushofer, Assistant Professor of Psychology, Princeton University
- Suresh Naidu, Assistant Professor in Economics and International and Public Affairs, Columbia University
- Pietro Ortoleva, Associate Professor of Economics, Columbia University
- Lauren Young, PhD Candidate, Department of Political Science, Columbia University
Safety is unequally distributed in the world, and fear is a pervasive presence in the lives of the poor. This includes fear of crime and fear of the police. This project tests whether fear has real economic costs through a hidden channel: cognitive load. We build on recent work spanning psychology and economics that shows that living in a state of “scarcity” – whether due to a scarcity of time or financial resources – causes a mental load that ultimately leads people to make decisions that undermine their efforts to escape poverty. This project extends that work both by looking at a new form of scarcity, scarcity of security, and by testing how the cognitive load of fear reduces productivity on tasks from different segments of the labor market.
We propose a series of experiments to test whether scarcity of security affects economic productivity in poor communities in Trenton, New Jersey. We will test fear of two forms of insecurity that the poor and particularly minority groups commonly face: fear of crime and fear of police brutality. By working in a behavioral lab, we will test the effects of insecurity in a way that both identifies the causal effect of violence and precisely measures its impacts on real outcomes. Our team of investigators, which includes experts in neurobiology, violence, and labor economics, is uniquely positioned to carry out this interdisciplinary project.
- William Fifer, Professor of Pediatrics and Psychiatry, College of Physicians and Surgeons; Associate Director, Sackler Institute for Developmental Psychobiology, CUMC
- Virginia Rauh, Professor of Population and Family Health, Mailman School of Public Health; Deputy Director, Columbia Center for Children’s Environmental Health
Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) is a complex neurodevelopmental disability that often begins with social and behavioral impairments early in life. Although the etiology of ASD is unclear, there is evidence of atypical neuropathology characterized by abnormal development of the limbic system and cerebellum. Studies have reported that the median age of diagnosis is often not until age 4, with lower socioeconomic status (SES) associated with later diagnosis. Yet, CDC statistics suggest that 80% of parents are expressing concerns related to ASD about their children by the age 2. The purpose of this project is to assess developmental delays in the second year of life in approximately 582 children who were previously enrolled in a large epidemiological study. Neonatal resting EEG data has been collected from all participants, and phone-based developmental screening tools will be administered between 24 and 36 months of age, with the goal of examining correlations between differences in electrocortical activity at birth and later socio-emotional/behavioral problems. Determining which perinatal, neonatal, and social risk factors are important in the development of ASD will help clinicians focus prevention, early diagnosis, and early intervention efforts. This study will form collaborations between developmental neuroscientists studying early neural differences and epidemiologists identifying population level risk factors for developmental disorders.
- Daphna Shohamy, Associate Professor of Psychology, Columbia University
- Eric Kandel, Professor of Neuroscience, Columbia University; Director, Kavli Institute of Brain Science; Co-Director, Mortimer Zucker Mind Brain Behavior Institute
- Celia Durkin, MA in Art History, Columbia University
The purpose of this project is to explore aspects of the perceptual processing of abstract art by the Beholder. Earlier research in this field has been rather limited, but has been useful in suggesting a number of alternative ideas. While some research suggests that abstract art elicits higher-order creative thinking associated with top-down processing, other research points to abstract art’s elicitation of bottom-up processing through the exaggeration of concrete visual data such as color, line, and shape. Building from the research on top-down and bottom-up processing, this project offers a new conceptual paradigm for investigating aspects of perception of abstract art. Using Construal Level Theory, a psychological theory that measures abstract (top-down related) and concrete (bottom-up related) thought processes, this project will test different behavioral measures via Mechanical Turk and develop a collection of stimuli to determine whether abstract art evokes more abstract or more concrete mental construal.
- Lawrence Yang, Associate Professor of Epidemiology, Mailman School of Public Health
- Kevin Ochsner, Professor of Psychology, Graduate School of Arts and Sciences
- Julie Spicer, Assistant Professor of Behavioral Medicine, Columbia University
While the study of stigma has advanced from a social science and public health perspective, there remains an almost complete lack of knowledge about the neural bases of stigma among people with mental illness that constitutes a sizeable gap. Gaining knowledge of neural circuits involved in stigma would substantially advance society and neuroscience by identifying fundamental brain processes by which stigma negatively exerts its effects and by providing biomarkers to guide selection of the most effective cognitive strategies to reduce stigma. Our proposal further examines stigma in the context of the groundbreaking development of the “clinical high risk for psychosis” (‘CHR’), a designation that enables the earliest identification of psychotic signs, thus facilitating public health efforts to prevent the onset of psychosis. This collaborative proposal adds new expertise in social neuroscience with stigma of the CHR in the context of an ongoing 5-year R01 grant. We propose to build upon the ongoing R01 to test mechanisms of “internalized stigma” (i.e., the application of harmful mental illness stereotypes to the self), cognition, and neural processes via two cognitive neuroscience paradigms in persons who are at CHR (n= 20). We advance understanding of internalized stigma by operationalizing it via novel behavioral and neuroscience versions of an established self-relevance task (where participants are asked to what extent a given mental illness trait describes them), and then link these markers of internalized stigma to performance on a memory task as well as neuroscience version of a facial emotion recognition task.
In Study #1, we utilize the self-relevance paradigm in a novel fashion to assess the degree of internalized stigma held by all CHR participants (n=20). We then use these new behavioral and neural “markers of internalized stigma” to predict current symptoms and functioning, as well as impairment of memory processes that may be linked with transition to psychosis. In Study #2, we will test emotion recognition of fear faces via an fMRI version of a widely-used facial emotion recognition task, in which initial behavioral data from our R01 shows that greater internalized stigma is linked with worse emotion recognition (i.e., more ‘false positive’ perceptions of fear among non-fear faces). Via this task, examining neural mechanisms underlying inaccurate social cognition of fearful faces (i.e., ‘false positive’ perception) might identify distinct activation of brain circuitry that underlies greater social impairment as measured clinically in CHR. Validating the first fMRI task to our knowledge for internalized stigma offers a key innovation to understand how neural bases of stigma in CHR may be linked with worse outcomes, including progression to psychosis, and to ultimately devise stigma interventions to increase uptake of early intervention. This study may thus initiate a transformative program to harness neuroscience methods to deepen examination of the social science concept of stigma by adding a powerful perspective to address this harmful societal dynamic.
2015 Seed Grants
- Geraldine Downey, Professor, Department of Psychology; Director, Center for Justice
- Carl Hart, Associate Professor, Departments of Psychology and Psychiatry, Columbia University and New York State Psychiatric Institute
- Frances Negron-Muntaner, Associate Professor, Department of English and Comparative Literature; Director, Media and Idea Lab; Director, Center for Ethnicity and Race
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.
- Jacqueline Gottlieb, Associate Professor Department of Neuroscience, Columbia College of Physicians and Surgeons
- Michael Woodford, John Bates Clark Professor of Political Economy, Department of Economics
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.
- Kimberly Noble, Associate Professor of Neuroscience and Education, Teachers College
- Jane Waldfogel, Compton Foundation Centennial Professor, School of Social Work; Co-Director, Columbia Population Research Center
- William Fifer, Professor, Pediatrics and Psychiatry, Columbia College of Physicians and Surgeons
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.
- Kavita Sivaramakrishnan, Assistant Professor, Department of Sociomedical Sciences, Mailman School of Public Health; Affiliated Faculty in the Department of History, Columbia University
- Jennifer Manly, Associate Professor of Neuropsychology, G.H. Sergievsky Center, Columbia College of Physicians and Surgeons
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.