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Faculty Growth Opportunity (GO!) Proposals

Faculty GO! Proposals


Psychology faculty are always launching new projects, but until now have not had a way to communicate them outside the department. This year we introduced the Faculty Growth Opportunity (GO!) Proposals as a way of telling alumni, donors, and other stakeholders about the exciting frontiers of the research going on in the department.

A call went out inviting faculty to submit Faculty GO! Proposals describing their most innovative, collaborative, and promising research projects for the coming years. We received 10 proposals from 17 different faculty members. The proposals are written in concise, lay language to reach as broad an audience as possible. You can read them all below.



Transformative Neuroscience for Social Change

Phillip Fisher, Elliot Berkman, Jennifer Pfeifer, Nicholas Allen

Early adverse experiences such as poverty, abuse, and neglect place people at increased risk for mental and physical health problems throughout life. Society has yet to find ways to reduce the effects of early adversity, even after major investment in the problem. Researchers at the University of Oregon are using cutting-edge neuroscience to understand the effects of early adversity on the brain. In turn, they use this knowledge to create “neurally informed” treatments that target specific brain systems. For example, they have built a program to improve self-control in teens based on current brain science. The new Center for Translational Neuroscience is a hub for research like this at UO. Studies in the Center use basic knowledge about how the brain works to build robust, scalable solutions to social problems. The Center brings scholars from across campus to work together in solving these problems. Beyond campus, the Center coordinates its efforts with a network of groups around the world such as the Center for the Developing Child at Harvard University. Future plans for the Center include reaching out to state and federal officials as well as private organizations to achieve impact at scale. A related focus of the Center is science communication. A major goal is to reach a broad audience of laypeople, policy makers, and philanthropists. Graduate students will be involved in all aspects of the research and communication at the Center as part of their training to be next-generation translational neuroscientists. These students receive advanced training in both neuroscience and clinical science, and mentorship from an interdisciplinary team of faculty.

Hope for Families Struggling with Mental Health Problems

Maureen Zalewski, Nicholas Allen

Growing up in a home with a parent who has mental health issues places children at great risk. Offspring of parents with mental health issues have high rates of emotional and behavioral problems and have less success in school and relationships. Little is known about how family functioning may link mental health issues across generations. In addition, early detection of mental health problems in offspring and methods for breaking this cycle are largely unknown.

Researchers at the University of Oregon are working on identifying problematic family dynamics and early signs of risk in children and adolescents who have parents with mental disorders. Dr. Nick Allen is conducting a federally funded study using brain imaging to look at communication styles in teenagers who have mothers that are depressed. Dr. Maureen Zalewski is completing a study that details how young children learn to manage their emotions when their own mothers have disorders that are marked by extreme emotional ups and downs.

Future research will develop treatments that break the cycle of mental health problems within these families. By targeting family functioning and markers of risk in offspring, it may be possible to prevent some of these children from developing mental disorders.

Drs. Allen and Zalewski both train doctoral students in the Psychology clinic to treat a wide range of mental health problems. All treatment methods are based on science. A goal of the clinic is to increase services for families in which a parent has mental health problems. Graduate students will also help develop these treatments. 

Wired for Learning

Caitlin Fausey, Michael Wehr

The brain helps people help themselves. Neural circuitry that emerges early in life helps people efficiently learn things later. But this process also has a dark side: many individuals struggle with an under-powered brain because they didn’t get the right, rich mixture of sights and sounds to kickstart this process in infancy. What is the raw material that helps make a brain built for lifelong learning? Can we figure out what early childhood experiences give learners the best shot at success? To get this right, we need to look ‘under the hood,’ at how macro structure from the world becomes imprinted into the micro structure of neural circuitry. One macro-to-micro puzzle that we must solve is to discover what sounds babies actually hear and how their neurons make sense of this soundscape. It’s very difficult to record from neurons in babies, but one exciting approach is to use mice, for which we have unprecedented tools here at the University of Oregon. We can teach mice to tell the difference between sounds in their environment and watch what happens to their neurons as they learn.

Caitlin Fausey, who has pioneered ways to capture the structure of babies’ everyday environments by outfitting them with wearable audio-visual recorders, is teaming up with Mike Wehr, who has been unraveling how mouse brains can process speech in a surprisingly human way. Together they propose to understand how neurons become tuned to what is meaningful in a stream of baby-directed speech. By learning how brain circuits change in response to real sounds, we can then assess challenges and offer solutions to optimize soundscapes for babies who might not experience them already. Ultimately this research could pave the way to understanding how early environments matter for both typically developing brains, as well as for babies struggling with language impairments and neurodevelopmental disorders such as autism. 

A New Tool for Distinguishing Normal from Pathological Cognitive Aging

Ulrich Mayr, Nash Unsworth, Elliot Berkman

Many of us worry that Alzheimer’s or other dementias will compromise our mental abilities as we age. Adding to such worries, normal aging itself comes with a slow decline in cognitive functioning that can be mistaken for dementia. Unfortunately, standard cognitive tests do not do a good job distinguishing between “normal” cognitive aging and dementia. The goal of this project is to develop a new approach to detect dementia-related cognitive change.

The ideal way of assessing cognitive aging would be to test a person’s functioning at multiple ages so that new drops in performance can be detected as they occur. However, current ways of measuring cognitive functioning do not reliably assess change over time. Existing batteries show strong practice effects that occlude true changes in functioning. Repeated testing is also affected by a statistical phenomenon called “regression to the mean” that makes it difficult to interpret a decline in scores from one test occasion to the next.

We use a new category of “adaptive” tests that are much more immune to practice effects than standard assessment batteries. To allow easy, repeated testing the battery will be provided as a web-based application. Most importantly, we use an innovative Big-Data approach to statistically deal with remaining practice and regression-to-the-mean effects. Specifically, every individual test performance is added to an ever-growing, dynamic database. Based on this information we can automatically generate precise predictions about an individual’s expected test performance, given everything already known about this individual (e.g., previous test scores, age, gender, etc.). Any deviation from the predicted score would be a highly meaningful signal that pathological processes might be at work.

Devising a new test battery is a cumbersome and time-intensive process. Seed funds will allow us to refine the prototype test battery, collect sufficient data to hone the big-data prediction algorithms, and to validate our approach against neuroimaging data. Equipped with such initial results we will be in an excellent position to seek outside funding for the necessary large-scale development. Whether in the areas of child development, concussion detection and management, or drug testing, detecting real cognitive change is a challenge. Thus, a well-functioning tool to reliably measure change would be of enormous value for cognitive aging and dementia research in other areas.

Developmental Neuroscience & Malnutrition: A Strong Case for Action in the First 1,000 Days

Jeff Measelle, Dare Baldwin, Geraldine Richmond (Chemistry)

The first 1000 days following conception are critical for optimal human development. Integrated interventions promoting nutrition, infant-mother health, and cognitive and socio-emotional development provide well-documented 7-to-1 returns on investment. Conditions in the rural areas of Southeast Asia are among the most challenging in the world precisely because critical services of this kind reach children too slowly during acute health crises, or are not located in villages to ensure that the day-to-day foundations of children’s health and development are well-built.

Developmental neuroscience provides important insights into the effects of malnutrition on human health and development. Because the brain underlies all facets of health and wellbeing, interventions that support and protect the brain’s development when it is most vulnerable (conception through approximately age 2) are critical. Integrated nutritional and social interventions targeting both the physical and neurobiological aspects of malnutrition, promise the strongest and longest-lasting benefits. At present, these scientific realities have not adequately informed efforts in low- and middle-income countries, especially Southeast Asia where rates of childhood malnutrition are the highest in the world.

We are a team of University of Oregon scientists (Jeff Measelle & Dare Baldwin – Developmental Psychology, and Geraldine Richmond – Chemistry/US State Department Science Envoy to the Lower Mekong Delta Countries) working in close partnership with government and non-government agencies to study and prevent the effects of malnutrition on very young children in Southeast Asia.

To date, both undergraduate (5 students) and graduate students (4 PhD students) have contributed in central ways to these efforts both here and in Southeast Asia. This combined scientific/humanitarian initiative has the potential to provide a substantial number of additional students with rich scientific and social policy-related training experiences.

Interventions to Promote a Value-Driven Life

Maureen Zalewski, Elliot Berkman

Achieving goals and decreasing undesired behaviors is difficult for most people. For example, the most common New Year’s resolutions—to eat more healthfully, exercise more, and quit smoking—usually end in failure. And yet, working towards one’s own goals is central to having a sense of meaning and purpose in life. How people understand their own reasons for why they engage in unwanted behaviors can play a role in whether or not they attain their goals.

How can we help people work toward their goals to ultimately lead a value driven life? This is a question that several researchers at the University of Oregon are studying. We are working on developing tools to help people change behaviors that they believe go against their goals and values. For example, we expect that prompting people to reflect on their values or think about what they get from engaging in undesirable behaviors will help those people integrate new, different behaviors into their life story. In turn, goal-directed behaviors that fit well with people’s core values are more likely to endure in the long run.

In the future, we want to look at whether these types of self-reflective programs can be applied to a wide range of behaviors that people want to change. We are also looking for new and creative ways to improve helping people live a life they value.

Psychology graduate students are helping to develop and deliver interventions that foster community members’ abilities to achieve their goals. Undergraduate researchers involved in the work will get first-hand experience with science and have the chance to test their own ideas with independent projects.

The Maternal Brain: A Likely Key to Preventing Postpartum Depression

Jennifer Ablow, Heidemarie Laurent

Can we predict which women will and will not develop depression during the postpartum period? Postpartum maternal depression (PPD) has profound negative impacts not only on mothers, but also on the infant’s developing brain and emotional well-being. Despite awareness of general risk factors, we know too little about which women will and will not develop PPD. Our team has identified an important new avenue of investigation with the discovery that the brain response to infant distress distinguishes depressed from non- depressed mothers. Specifically, we showed that non-depressed mothers respond to their infant’s cries in brain areas associated with approach and reward, whereas depressed mothers lack this response. We believe these differences in the maternal brain may be present even before or immediately after the birth of a child, giving us a critical opportunity to intervene immediately. Given the prevalence and costs of PPD, the identification of women at greatest risk for ongoing depression is a critical public health priority.

Drs. Laurent and Ablow have enjoyed a collaboration of over 10 years. Their work together has resulted in multiple manuscripts (12 published) and conference presentations (over 15) that inspired the current proposal to identify maternal neural response profiles to infant signals that predict persistent postpartum affective problems and infant emotion dysregulation. The long-term goal of this research is to prevent intergenerational transmission of emotional disorders through targeted perinatal screening and intervention. Furthermore, this work sets the stage for the education and promotion of undergraduate and graduate students, most of whom are young women. Thus, in addition to training them on important skills (e.g., neuroimaging, neuroendocrine and behavioral techniques) to prepare them for careers and advanced degrees, Laurent and Ablow, both mothers, provide these young women with important models of the balance of career and family.

Why do people differ in their ability to learn skills such as reading, arithmetic, and athletics?

Michael I. Posner, Mary K. Rothbart, Cristopher Niell (Biology)

We hope to understand individual differences in the brain networks that underlie skills acquired by children and adults. Our work has pointed to the importance of genes as a factor in building the brain networks that underlie human skills. We have shown that a set of genes that influence chemicals which change the activity of cells in the frontal part of the human brain are crucial for networks important in self control. Some children and adults are more efficient in the rate of learning new skills because their genes help the environment to alter the expression of genes that are related to the development of brain networks. Thus those individuals with these more efficient systems can learn and can carry out skilled behavior more quickly.

We are currently carrying out studies that will allow us to determine precisely how the pathways that connect brain areas into a network are changed by stimulation and through skill learning.  These studies require the use of high levels of magnification to view pathways before and after learning. Our current studies are being conducted in mice and can then be related to changes in pathways we observe in humans by brain scanning methods. We can also determine whether the rate of learning a skill is controlled by the same genes in mice and humans.

People have always wondered why one person seems to be so good at handiwork, another at reading and a third at arithmetic, even though are equally intelligent and have access to similar learning opportunities. We hope our studies will allow further understanding of these differences and can lead to improvements education designed to teach skills.

The Neurobiology of Attachment

Matt Smear, Michael Wehr

How is the bond between a new parent and an infant formed? Can we understand this magical but mysterious moment in life at the level of neurons and circuits in the brain? We want to unravel this mystery using mice, for which we have a rapidly growing toolbox of genetic and neuroscience techniques here at the University of Oregon.

In mice, new mothers bond with their pups and learn to recognize both the smell of their babies and the sound of their calls. We know that the smell of new pups can actually cause a mother to learn the calls of her individual pups. These neuronal changes appear to be part of the attachment/bonding process. How does this work? Two labs in the Psychology Department have joined forces to try to find out. The Smear lab studies the sense of smell, and the Wehr lab studies hearing. Both use cutting-edge techniques like electrophysiology and optogenetics to listen in on neurons and even control them with lasers. Together they hope to understand how smell and sound come together in the neural circuitry that underlies bonding. This research could shed light not just on how bonding is implemented in the brain, but how it could go wrong in disorders like Autism. This project is in too early a stage for conventional sources of funding, presenting a unique opportunity for shaping the direction of research and fostering discovery and innovation.

Poverty, Personality, and Planfulness

Elliot Berkman, Sanjay Srivastava

Poor people tend to make choices that favor short-term over long-term outcomes. Though some have argued that low self-control causes poverty, often poverty forces people to prioritize immediate needs over future plans. For example, someone with strong self-control might still need to take a high-interest short-term loan if they have no other way to buy food.

Our goal is to uncover the ways that poverty shapes how people trade off between short-term and distant goals. This work will inform programs and policies to change how people are impacted by poverty.

The research will build on our current research and expertise on planning and goal striving. We will study how scarcity affects mental functioning using a mix of lab-based experiments, national surveys, and brain imaging. As a starting point, our first studies will identify the features of an environment that promote short-term thinking. We will also isolate the effects of those features on brain function and measure their prevalence across ages and regions. Our participants will be underserved people from the University of Oregon and Eugene communities. We will partner with groups on campus such as the Summer Academy to Inspire Learning and Pathways Oregon to engage students from disadvantaged backgrounds in the research. Students involved in the project will gain first-hand scientific experience while working on issues relevant to their communities and experiences.