The long-term goal of our research is to improve health and well being in daily life. Our research is at the intersection of several subfields within psychology, neuroscience, and economics including human development, affective science, cognitive neuroscience, behavioral economics, and experimental finance. We use a combination of behavioral and neuroimaging techniques ranging from detailed measurement of functional brain activity (fMRI) and neuroreceptors (PET) in the laboratory to experience sampling in everyday life. Our behavioral lab and offices are located in the Duke Center for Cognitive Neuroscience and we conduct our neuroimaging research at the Duke Brain Imaging and Analysis Center.
Affect and Motivation
Most of the work in our lab examines how changes in goals across adulthood influence affective and motivational function. We have collaborated on a longitudinal experience sampling study revealing that emotional experience and regulation improve with age. We've also demonstrated a positivity effect (i.e., increased sensitivity to positive relative to negative information) in reward processing and striatal and insular function in old age. Examining the effects of emotion on cognition, our work has shown that using goal-relevant emotional stimuli enhances attentional control and working memory in old age – either partially or fully remediating age-related cognitive deficits. In work that is currently in progress we are exploring how age differences in motivational goals influence social and health-related decision making (e.g., how goal priorities may shift decision preferences in old age).
Learning and Decision Making
A major goal of our research is to improve models of the psychology and neurobiology of aging. The psychology of aging has revealed that some functions improve with age while others decline. For example, older adults have an experience advantage over younger people but are disadvantaged by increasing limitations in fluid cognition. We examine the implications of these changes for decision making in old age. Much of this work has focused on the role of learning ability for making financial decisions. In this line of studies we use recent, novel learning as an model of fluid cognition and accumulated knowledge (crystalized learning) as a model of experience. This set of studies on learning and decision making aims to make contributions not only to models of cognition and aging but to our understanding of fluid and crystalized intelligence more generally.
The neuromodulator dopamine is implicated not only in variability in cognitive function but also plays an important role in motivation. In a meta-analysis of 30 years of human neuroimaging (PET/SPECT) research, we quantified declines in the dopamine system (receptors, transported, synthesis) across adulthood as 3.7–14.0% per decade. Negative effects of age on DA transporters and receptors were moderate to large, and age effects were larger for D1- than D2-like receptors. In contrast, there was no significant effect of age on DA synthesis capacity. This cumulative aggregation of decades of research identified presynaptic mechanisms (spared synthesis capacity and reduced DA transporters) that may partially account for previously unexplained phenomena whereby older adults appear to use dopaminergic resources effectively. The relation between age-related declines in dopamine function and motivational factors have received little study, and research has neglected the potential overlap of or dissociations in dopamine’s influence on neurobiological systems that are associated with cognitive and motivational changes in adulthood. In several projects in progress, we are exploring these interactions using multimodal neuroimaging protocols that include comprehensive behavioral individual difference measures as well as fMRI and PET imaging of dopamine receptors. We are interested in how pharmacological interventions can enhance cognition, and how behavioral interventions can enhance neurochemical function.
Translation from the Lab to Everyday Life
Translation is vital for social impact. We study behaviors in the lab that we believe are directly related to real-world behavior. Over the past few years, together with collaborators we have documented that performance on many laboratory tasks is related to real-world financial behavior (Ersner-Hershfield et al 2009, Samanez-Larkin et al 2010, Knutson et al 2011). We are currently collecting measures of real-world decisions and experience sampling of emotional experience and requirements for cognitive control in everyday life in younger, middle-aged, and older adults. In addition to basic research, we strive to directly apply research findings to interventions. Together with collaborators at the Stanford Center on Longevity we are developing methods to facilitate collaboration between traditional academic labs and private sector partners with the goal of accelerating the translation and application of research findings.