Indiana University Research & Creative Activity

Undergraduate Issue

Volume 26 Number 2
Spring 2004

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Julie Stout, Megan Rudicil, Joe Lutrging, Alexander Murphy-Nakhnikian
Professor Julie Stout (standing, right) with undergraduate research assistants in her cognitive science laboratory. From left, the students are Megan Rudicil, Joe Lutgring (standing), and Alexander Murphy-Nakhnikian.
©2004 Tyagan Miller

The Science of Making Choices

by Lauren J. Bryant

It's an unusually quiet morning behind the door marked 239C in the Indiana University Bloomington Psychology Building. Typically, the buzz of activity in this warren of rooms would be keeping Megan Rudicil alert, but this morning she says she needs more caffeine to do the trick. Settling into a chair, drink in hand, Rudicil hardly seems to need a caffeine kick.

Hands gesturing energetically, she talks about being part of the Clinical and Cognitive Neuroscience (CCNS) research group. Led by Julie Stout, IUB associate professor of psychology, the CCNS laboratory focuses on the scientific study of the brain, particularly how our human brain systems work when we do something complex, such as make a decision or try to solve a problem. There are more than a dozen researchers and staff handling the lab's various studies. Half of them are undergraduates.

Rudicil, a junior, is leader for one of the lab's big projects—a four-year study of drug abusers and decision making. Funded by the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), the project's goal is to uncover the psychological processes and brain mechanics that underlie drug abusers' routine risk-taking (their decisions to continue drug use). Rudicil and others are testing users of various drugs, including cocaine and marijuana. Their findings about how psychological factors—such as attraction to risk or aversion to loss—vary in individual users should eventually help create better courses of drug abuse treatment, targeted according to the kind of drug involved.

For a recent phase of the NIDA study, Rudicil recruited subjects and administered a skin-conductance version of a "gambling task." Skin-conductance means subjects wore electrodes that measured minute changes in their sweat gland activity as they "gambled" on four decks of cards, then reacted to their wins and losses. (Real money was involved; participants kept what they won.) The resulting data told the researchers how stimulating the task was for the subject and also what aspect was stimulating—for example, making a choice might give the biggest kick to one person while another is affected far more by the disappointment of a loss. After painstakingly hand-scoring some test results, Rudicil adapted a computer program so the test data could be analyzed far more efficiently.

Assisted by undergraduates Julie Ruckman and Rachel Byers, Rudicil searched the data for trends in abusers' approaches and responses to risk as compared with two control groups of men and women. An earlier analysis had suggested that non-abusing females performed the least successfully on the task. Rudicil decided to pursue the differing gender results.

"We hypothesized that perhaps the healthy females chose the less advantageous decks of cards because they were less interested in the task—they just didn't care that much about winning," she explains. "We used the skin conductance measure to look into it. The analysis on that data is still in progress."

As she reels off descriptions of data and phases, responses, amplitudes, and T tests, it's hard to imagine that little more than a year ago, Rudicil was working in a bagel shop. Her scientific instincts seem utterly natural—and perhaps surprising for someone who nearly flunked out of middle school. Rudicil credits tutors and teachers with turning her academic life around, which is why she is "wholeheartedly passionate" about becoming a secondary-school English teacher. "There's nothing I want to do but teach," she says.

So what's she doing in a neuroscience lab?

She thinks it's fun, for one thing. The CCNS lab is "the greatest work environment," she says. And she loves the experiments: "I'm fascinated by how we can apply our results more broadly to ourselves and the world we really live in." She's also good at it. Stout calls Rudicil's capabilities "fabulous," adding that she does work that postdocs do. Mainly, though, Rudicil is convinced the lab work is making a difference in her future: "I eventually want to focus on education research and reform, and I've learned so much about research here that will help me after I leave the classroom."

Like Rudicil, sophomore Alexander Murphy-Nakhnikian seems to have an unusual major for a clinical researcher—philosophy. Despite a very late night of studying, his dark eyes flash as he talks about Plato and Descartes, knowledge and free will, with an ease that would make his philosophy professor father proud. But he's equally at home with science—he's also majoring in chemistry and psychology (with a minor in history), which no doubt pleases his clinical psychologist mother.

It was science, in fact, that drew Murphy-Nakhnikian to join the Science, Technology, and Research Scholars program in the IUB College of Arts and Sciences. "I didn't see anything like it at other schools," he says of the program that provides him four years of laboratory research experience, an annual research stipend, and mentoring from Stout.

Murphy-Nakhnikian chose Stout's CCNS group because of the lab's second main focus: neuropsychiatric disorders, including Huntington's, Parkinson's, Alzheimer's, and autism. All of these are cognitive disorders, ailments that impair a person's mental abilities to reason, remember, and respond. Under the guidance of postdoctoral fellow Shannon Johnson, Murphy-Nakhnikian is working on a study of the neurobiology of emotion processing (NEP)—in other words, how do people with impairments of their brains and nervous systems process emotions?

Murphy-Nakhnikian says the study is in an early "road-map" stage—so far, he and lab research coordinator Heather Coates have reviewed the literature, identifying theories and unanswered questions about brain structure and function in people affected by various cognitive disorders. Murphy-Nakhnikian is also helping compile data from a computerized task that tracks how teenagers with Asperger's syndrome register emotions. (Asperger's is related to autism, but children with the disorder have higher verbal abilities than is typical for children with autism.)

In general, people with autism have difficulty registering emotions in another's face or eyes. In the NEP task, children ages 13 to 18—some with Asperger's, some without—look at faces on a computer screen. The faces show different emotions—disgust, fear, happiness, sadness, and so on. As a teenager looks at the faces, his or her ability to recognize and remember the emotions on the faces is measured via skin conductance.

"We're looking for amplitude changes in the responses," says Joe Lutgring, another CCNS undergraduate researcher working on the study. Pointing at wavy, sometimes jagged, green lines stretching across a computer screen, Lutgring explains that each time a subject looks at a face, it produces a different spike—big spikes mean a bigger response. "It's like lie detector stuff," he says. After the task is complete, Lutgring and others process the data, averaging each subject's responses.

The NEP study is important clinically. Comparing data from the teenagers with Asperger's with responses from the control group could help pinpoint which brain areas function abnormally when autistic children attempt to process emotional information. But Murphy-Nakhnikian's interest in the study is personal, too.

In high school, he was a "buddy" to two autistic children, taking them out to movies and restaurants to help them with social skills and public behavior. He enjoyed the children so much that he looked for a similar opportunity when he started at IU. He found none, so as a freshman member of the IU Honors College Advisory Board, Murphy-Nakhnikian started the Autism Mentoring Program. The project matches Honors College students with children and young people who have autism or Asperger's. Murphy-Nakhnikian hopes to expand the program to the whole campus soon.

Experiences with his "little buddies" have only intensified Murphy-Nakhnikian's scientific curiosity about how the brains of children with autism differ. He plans to seek further answers in medical school, eventually specializing in pediatric neurology. But the philosopher in Murphy-Nakhnikian is never far away: "In a different light," he says, "you can see the idiosyncrasies of kids with autism as charming eccentricities. Why do we need to improve them? Progress is relative. If we can help them enjoy life, then it's all well and good."

Over the next several years, the NEP study will expand to include subjects with Huntington's disease. Huntington's is inherited and degenerative—nerve cells in the brain waste away, causing personality changes, uncontrolled movements, and progressive dementia. It's a tragic disease, Stout observes, emerging during adulthood when many of those affected are parents and primary breadwinners. Because Huntington's is incurable, the main treatment goals are to slow its progress, or better yet, delay onset of the disease.

Lots of studies looking for Huntington's treatments are underway using biochemical and animal models, but "we have to get to the point where we can have efficient clinical trials with humans," says Stout. "And the way to get to the point of a good clinical trial is to have a very good idea of what the neurobiological course of the disease looks like."

That's why Stout's lab is involved in a large international study, funded by the National Institutes of Health, called PREDICT-HD. The overall study is looking for the earliest indicators of Huntington's. For their part, the CCNS group has developed the "cognitive battery"—several different kinds of tests that measure memory, motor function (speed, control), and "executive functions" such as mental flexibility, abstract thinking, and planning. The tests are being given to people who are genetically likely to inherit Huntington's, but haven't yet been diagnosed. Over time, the CCNS researchers are looking for very slight changes in the participants' test performances. Early changes in mental functions detected by the tests may allow the development of better drugs to slow or postpone Huntington's onset.

Just after a morning meeting about PREDICT-HD, freshman Clayton Taylor sorts a stack of bulk CDs into separate cases. As a research assistant for the Huntington's study, Taylor scored test data and entered it into the study's database. It's almost as mundane a task as sorting CDs, Taylor admits, but the study still excites him.

"Behind every piece of data, there's a real person," he says. "And understanding why that person does well or poorly, that's attractive to me."

Mundane or not, the laboratory's activities have offered him other things that will be useful in the medical school future he has planned, says Taylor. "There's an emphasis on communication skills. Every day, there are meetings or presentations and discussions about things like how to write research papers."

After admitting going to bed at 3 or 4 a.m., Taylor identifies the lab's biggest lesson: "I'm going to sound like my dad," he says with a wince, "but I'm learning time management and responsibility. This is a professional, real-world environment. Even with an hour or so of sleep, I still have to be here."

In a lab that studies the brain science behind decision making, Stout says what undergraduate researchers most need to learn is how to make their own decisions.

"Research takes a lot of self-discipline and independent thinking about how to make the next step," says Stout, who has been mentoring undergraduates since 1995. "I really try to help students learn to make choices, to become better problem solvers. I hope that has an effect on other parts of their lives."

CCNS undergraduates agree that their lab experiences stretch them. There's something about the brain and how its wired, these students say, that engages them as scientists. But overall, it may be the opportunity to learn from their mistakes that makes the biggest impact. "Julie is very good at anticipating problems, but she's not judgmental," says Murphy- Nakhnikian of the CCNS lab's main mentor. "She helps you get through things."

Stout comes by her sensitivity to undergraduate students in part from personal experience. As a sophomore on the huge campus of Ohio State University, she found a home in a psychology lab. "It helped shape my whole future," she says of her undergraduate research. "When I got into a lab, I began to be able to imagine myself as a scientist, and I got skills that helped anchor me.

"It opened new worlds. That's what I hope for my students."

Lauren J. Bryant is editor of Research & Creative Activity.