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Recent Grants Strengthen Psychology's Focus on Research

(L-R) Psychology Department chair Prof. Ellen Winner, postdoctoral associate Brendan Gaesser, Prof. Elizabeth Kensinger, Asst. Prof. Alexa Veenema, Assoc. Prof. Scott Slotnick and Asst. Prof. Liane Young. (Photo by Lee Pellegrini)

By Sean Smith | Chronicle Editor

Published: Oct. 2, 2014

Three Psychology Department faculty members have received grants to support research in diverse areas such as the interaction of different brain regions during spatial memory, the development of key aspects of religious cognition, the cognitive and neural basis of prosocial behavior, and the brain’s regulation of social play behavior.

Understanding social play

Assistant Professor Alexa Veenema is the recipient of a five-year National Institutes of Health RO1 award of $1.7 million. The grant will enable her to study the neural circuits underlying social play behavior in juvenile rats and how these neural circuits differ between males and females. Social play is a highly rewarding behavior and has been shown to be important for the development of social skills in humans and rodents, Veenema explained.

Veenema’s lab seeks to build on its discovery that the neuropeptide vasopressin modulates social play differently in male compared to female rats. More detailed knowledge about this sex-specific regulation of social play in rats may help understand typical and atypical social play behaviors in human children. Social play deficits are seen in neurodevelopmental disorders, such as autism, that show a strong sex bias in prevalence, she noted.

“Understanding how social behavior is regulated by the brain is essential in gaining insights into normal as well as abnormal social functioning,” said Veenema, who expressed appreciation to her lab members and Psychology Department colleagues for their assistance in her obtaining the grant, which she described as the most sought-after for scientists in medically oriented research labs. “Ultimately, we hope that our research will contribute to the development of more effective treatment of the symptoms and/or causes of social behavior deficits in humans.”

Science of morality

Assistant Professor Liane Young and her postdoctoral associates Larisa Heiphetz and Brendan Gaesser, as well as Professor Elizabeth Kensinger, were awarded two grants from the John Templeton Foundation that will aid her Morality Lab’s continuing study of the science of morality.

A three-year, $261,130 grant will fund research led by Heiphetz on children’s and adults’ religious cognition to better understand the development of reasoning about God’s mind. This interdisciplinary project, melding developmental psychology, the cognitive science of religion, and personality and social psychology, will examine how perceptions of God’s mind change across development, how God’s mind is perceived as unique, and the relationship between religious cognition and the ability to reason about humans’ mental states, according to Young.

“These studies will enhance scientific understanding of religious cognition and unite disciplines that have, up to now, remained largely separate,” she said. “This research will lead to enduring impacts in three areas: motivating significant new lines of inquiry into religious cognition; promoting interdisciplinary research; and building awareness of the links between religious cognition and morality.”

In addition, Young’s lab received a two-year, $145,000 Templeton Science of Prospection Award for a project spearheaded by Gaesser that focuses on cognitive and neural means by which prospection can be used to foster prosocial behavior – voluntary behavior benefiting other people or society as a whole – in adults. The project involves four studies that investigate the mechanisms by which episodic simulation can be used to facilitate empathy for people in need.

“We hope that, in addition to revealing how episodic stimulation and memory can promote empathy and prosociality, this project will guide future research targeted at alleviating empathic deficits in patient populations such as autism spectrum disorder or Alzheimer’s disease,” said Young. “More broadly, this project will lay the foundation for research at the intersection of prospection, memory, and moral psychology.

“These two grants help to expand our research program beyond what might strictly be considered to be ‘moral psychology,’ to two topics closely related to morality: how people reason about God’s mind and how simulation of good deeds affects participants’ willingness to perform those good deeds,” she added. “The critical links between religion and morality and between moral judgment and moral behavior are ones we hope to explore in pursuing this grant-funded research.”

Spatial memory

Associate Professor Scott Slotnick’s three-year, $200,000 grant from the Dana Foundation will fund an investigation into how frontal and visual sensory regions interact during spatial memory. Slotnick’s team will integrate three different brain-imaging techniques – the first time such a method has been used – in an effort to study spatial and temporal mechanisms of brain region interactions. This work could be helpful in diagnosing and tracking treatment of brain injuries or diseases that affect the frontal lobe including stroke, Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia, schizophrenia, depression and attention deficit disorder.

“This is a particularly prestigious and competitive grant – and particularly competitive this year, with less than 10 percent of submissions receiving approval,” said Slotnick. “The grant is very meaningful for me because this project is on the cutting edge of cognitive neuroscience research. This type of research is very difficult to get funded from traditional government agencies that typically support next-step projects rather than future-thinking projects.”

Professor Ellen Winner, the department chair, said the grant awards and the projects they support reflect the strong research-oriented direction the department has taken during the past decade.

“Scott, Elizabeth, Alexa and Liane all arrived at BC during the past 10 years, and they represent the success of our faculty in pursuing supported research,” she said. “What’s particularly interesting is their work, collectively, is a cross-section of neuroscience, one of the most vibrant areas of psychology today. Alexa’s research on animal behavior is at the basic level, and absolutely vital to the studies Scott, Elizabeth and Liane do in human behavior – which has all kinds of potential applications, even beyond psychology.

“It’s very exciting to see the range of scholarly endeavors within our department earning such recognition.”