Nicholas Edwards and Professor Dawson Hedges, Department of Psychology
The purpose of my project was to find factors that might be predictive of cognitive deficits in a college age group of people. After discussing the topic with my mentor, Dawson Hedges, we chose a few broad categories, including family health history, demographics, education, and psychological history. Once we had decided upon these topics, I began looking through the literature to see what questions people had already asked.
After performing a detailed review of literature, I produced a list of various things that are believed to affect cognitive functioning. Using this list, I compiled a detailed demographic survey comprising more than 200 questions. The survey asks volunteers about their medical history, including questions about traumatic brain injury, exposure to harmful substances, birth weight, and personal and family history of disease. Additionally, subjects are asked about their financial situation, emotional health, religious involvement, and educational background. The average survey time is approximately 30 minutes and volunteers from undergraduate psychology classes were offered extra credit for participating in the study.
In addition to writing the questionnaire, we had to determine how we would measure cognitive ability. The two main options were to use either electroencephalography (EEG) or functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI). We decided to use EEG because there were facilities we could use on campus. We collaborated with Michael Larson, who helped us decide which EEG method to use and trained me on how to do it.
The EEG task we used is called error-related negativity (ERN). With the ERN, we had participants perform a computerized task while using EEG to record their brain activity. The task forces participants to make errors. Normally, when a participant makes an error, the EEG measures a standard electrical spike that signifies that the participant realized the error they made. When the EEG signal is repeatedly absent or late, the participant may have problems with error detection. Thus, the ERN provides a reliable method of detecting cognitive deficits.
Between the fall 2010 and winter 2011 semesters, we were able to gather data from 130 participants. Currently, we are sorting through that data and deciding which factors we think are most likely to yield results. I expect that several factors will prove to be associated with deviations in error processing. Specifically, I believe the data will show that ERN amplitude is linked with such things as traumatic brain injury and exposure to drugs and environmental hazards such as pesticides or solvents. With these data, we hope to form a comprehensive model that describes how these factors are correlated with cognitive deficits.
My experience with this research has been extremely helpful. I learned to make important decisions, organize my work, and set deadlines. It also taught me to communicate effectively and ask questions when needed. Prior to performing these studies, my only research experience was in an organic chemistry lab. In September, I will begin a neuroscience Ph.D. program at Brown University. Neuroscience is a very broad field, so it has been great for me to see different aspects of research. The opportunity to participate in research with the help of an ORCA grant has been one of the highlights of my undergraduate experience at BYU.