Over winter break, I was an extern at the Center for Cognitive Neuroscience under Dr. Sharon Thompson-Schill at University of Pennsylvania. My co-extern and I spent our days at Sharon’s lab talking to her and other researchers about their research.
One of the topics that Sharon is interested in is cognitive control. This refers to the executive control of the prefrontal cortex on cognitive processes such as rational thought, task flexibility, and working memory. Interestingly, when the human brain is developing, the prefrontal cortex grows much slower than the rest of it—as a result children exhibit the traits of someone with a damaged prefrontal cortex for many years. This quality has inspired much research into ways to accelerate the prefrontal growth of children, to make them “mature” faster.
However, Sharon points out that there are some important tasks that children are better at than adults, like learning and creativity. Their prefrontal immaturity may actually aid in these tasks and the cognitive control that adults have inhibits them. I observed a tDCS experiment in the lab that either increased or decreased prefrontal activity in participants while they performed tasks that require learning and attention to see if their performance was affected by the changes in prefrontal activity. The idea was that participants with decreased prefrontal activity were more like children and would do better on the tasks without the control of the prefrontal cortex in action. Therefore, it may be inadvisable to hasten the prefrontal growth of children without fully understanding the benefits of slower growth. Perhaps it is most efficient for children to have underdeveloped prefrontal cortices to learn more fully and to develop flexible learning and rational thinking later as adults.
I also observed an fMRI study on the neural substrates of semantic composition using noun-noun word pairs. If you heard the term “robin hawk” would you think of a bird that had traits of a robin and a hawk, or of a hawk that hunts robins? These were the kinds of questions that participants would think about while their brains were scanned to understand the brain regions associated with this type of thinking. I learned about code switching—a phenomenon that bilinguals exhibit as they comfortably switch languages mid conversation or even mid sentence. This is linked to cognitive control and the left inferior frontal gyrus—code switchers who have less cognitive control may be able to switch more fluidly/correctly.
Externing at the Center for Cognitive Neuroscience taught me a lot about exciting topics in neuroscience and the environment of a cognitive neuroscience research lab. I got valuable advice about a career in research and had a very educational, rewarding experience. Exploring Philadelphia’s streets, restaurants, and museums in our downtime was pretty great too!