Research in our lab currently focuses on the development of cognitive skills such as task switching and reading in late childhood and early adolescence. We are interested in how cognitive processes develop over age and think atypical development enriches our understanding of what is ‘typical’ by providing insight as to the vulnerable aspects of cognitive development. To address our questions, we use behavioral methods such as cognitive tests, neuropsychological assessments, eye tracking, neuroimaging, and studies of patient populations.
Neuroimaging Study of Life Experiences and Executive Function in Children
(The Twin Brains Study)
We are inviting families with twins in grades 3-5 to take part in a behavioral and neuroimaging study. The purpose of the ‘Twin Brains Study’ is to better understand how life events and circumstances contribute to child development. We are interested in how aspects of families, schools, and neighborhoods interact with biological processes to impact children’s learning; twins allow us to determine how these processes develop. This exciting project includes the collection of fMRI data, neuropsychological assessments, and surveys about the twins’ environment and experiences.
We predict that twins’ past and current experiences will contribute to the development of executive functions (skills that allow a person to control their thoughts and behaviors in the pursuit of a goal). We predict that genetic influences will contribute to executive functions as well. Finally, we hypothesize that these gene-outcome and environment-outcome relationships will be reflected by brain activity during tasks requiring cognitive control.
If you are the parent or guardian of twins and you wish to learn more about the Twin Brains Study, sign up here: j.mp/UTtwinbrains
Project 4: Neural Correlates of Reading Comprehension in Typical and Struggling Readers: A Multimodal Neuroimaging Study
Currently, we are collaborating with the Texas Center for Learning Disabilities (TCLD) to conduct a multicenter project in partnership with The University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston. The TCLD is a grant-funded research center developed to investigate the classification, early intervention, and remediation of learning disabilities (LD). Project 4 proposes a systematic investigation of different brain profiles that vary with the classification of subtypes of reading disabilities and in relation to intervention. It is closely linked with the other projects being conducted by the TCLD. Our goal is to evaluate the neural correlates of reading intervention in children at risk for or with identified LD involving reading. We will approach these investigations using structural and functional MRI images collected from elementary and middle school students in the Houston and Austin areas. We will also examine the contextual role of socioeconomic status and bilingualism in how children respond to intervention.
We hypothesize that the brain activity during reading-related tasks will account for significant, independent variance in reading comprehension performance.
We hypothesize that the imaging data collected before reading-intervention occurs will have predictive value related to the amount of behavioral response to intervention that an individual experiences.
We predict that participants who experience improvement in reading skills as a result of intervention will have detectable brain activity changes when comparing pre-intervention to post-intervention imaging data. These changes will cause the brain activity of these readers to appear more similar to typical readers.
Neuroimaging the Development of Cognitive Function
Currently, we are conducting a behavioral study with children ages 6-16 and young adults ages 18-27. The task, called Shape Shifter, is a rule-based matching game that aims to systematically manipulate variables in order to engage cognitive systems involved in adaptive control, attention, and the ability to flexibly switch between tasks. The task is designed to match child and adult performance and induce switch costs (decreased performance due to rapidly switching between tasks) in both age groups. We also aim to investigate the maturation of different aspects of the adaptive control network during development. The project will include collection of fMRI data, neuropsychological assessments, and neighborhood-level variables of socioeconomic status.
An additional branch of research involves delineating the role of visual attention in task switching. This includes identifying differing task preparation strategies used by children and adults and how perceptual dimensions (features such as color or shape, similarity) can widen or narrow performance differences across development. This research uses a combination of eye tracking and drift diffusion modeling to capture group differences in information processing and decision making.
We predict that improvement in short-duration adaptive task control performance after practice will differ by adaptive network maturity level, such that intermediately performing participants will show the greatest levels of relative improvement after progressing through increasingly complex levels. Specifically, we predict that errors and switching between few rules with small demands on working memory reflect early-level skills.
We hypothesize learning will occur within the time frame of the study. Individual performance on the first level of the task compared to an identical level at the end of the experiment will show improvement in both reaction time and accuracy after the participant has progressed through 8 other levels of increasing complexity.
We hypothesize that children prepare less during cueing periods, leading to inefficient or incomplete task loading and impulsive decisions. We also hypothesize that children are less able to selectively attend to perceptual dimensions and this may also account for their consistently lower task switching performance compared to adults.
Neuroimaging Typical and Atypical Development of Cognitive Function
We are currently initiating a project expanding Shape Shifter to examine adaptive executive functions across a number of disorders: OCD, ADHD, Tourette Syndrome, and Autism.
Reasearch Assistant Opportunities
There are no paid Research Assistant positions at this time.
Undergraduate Research Opportunities
Are you an undergraduate student looking for the opportunity to volunteer as a research assistant in a developmental cognitive neuroscience lab?
We often have openings for undergraduates looking to gain experience in a behavioral and neuroimaging research lab. Duties include participant recruitment, scheduling of scanning sessions, preparation leading up to scanning, follow-ups with parents and children, and data entry. Other possible duties may include reading literature, attending meetings and learning more about the workings of a research lab. With proper experience and a strong work ethic the possibility of learning fMRI data analysis and getting trained on the MRI scanner can be discussed. In summary, the more you put in the more you will get out of this position.
Please also send an email to the lab manager regarding your application. After you complete the application, upload your resume and cover letter, and email the lab manager, we will be in touch in about a week to schedule an interview if your interests and skills appear to be a good fit with our openings.
Graduate Student Opportunities
Dr. Church-Lang will be admitting graduate students in Fall 2016. Please email her directly, call 512-475-7009, or stop by her office in SEA 2.216.
We are always interested in working with other laboratories, researchers, and clinicians. Please contact Dr. Jessica Church-Lang to discuss possible collaborative projects.