National Institutes of Health, National Science Foundation grants to advance Overman’s neuroscience research

Amy Overman, assistant dean of Elon College, the College of Arts and Sciences, and professor in the Psychology Department and Neuroscience Program, has received two grants totaling more than $500,000 to support collaborative neuroscience research with partners at Penn State University and N.C. A&T State University.

Assistant Dean and Professor Amy Overman has been awarded two federal grants totaling more than $500,000 that will support research projects at the intersection of cognitive neuroscience and computer science. The projects also maintain and expand collaborations between Elon, N.C. A&T State University, and Penn State University.

Amy Overman, professor in the Psychology Department and Neuroscience Program and assistant dean of Elon College

An award from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) for $413,933 over three years will advance Overman’s work in the field of cognitive neuroscience that is focused on age-related changes in how the brain processes memories. This marks the second time Overman has been principal investigator on a grant from the NIH. In 2016, Overman secured the university’s first direct grant from NIH, a $343,866 award that also supported her research on memory and aging.

The new grant will allow her to extend the scientific aims of her work in new and innovative directions that involve advanced computational analyses of brain-imaging data. Co-Investigators Joseph Stephens of N.C. A&T State University and Nancy Dennis of Penn State University will also contribute to the project.

Additionally, Overman has been awarded a $100,000 grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF) in support of research focused on cognition and cybersecurity. The grant is part of a $500,000 project led by Mohd Anwar of N.C. A&T State University and explores people’s decision-making with regard to security-related software updates, including how those decisions may be influenced by age, race and socioeconomic status.

Local Connections

Both projects strengthen collaborative links with N.C. A&T State University in Greensboro, with N.C. A&T faculty and students working closely with Overman and her mentored students. “It is a huge scientific benefit to have such a great partner institution so close by,” said Overman.

Additionally, the NIH-sponsored research will involve collection of brain-imaging data at The Joint School of Nanoscience and Nanoengineering at Gateway Research Park in Greensboro. Overman’s previous NIH-funded project utilized brain-imaging facilities at Penn State. This arrangement meant that Elon students analyzed data year-round but were only able to participate in data collection during the summers when they would travel to the Penn State campus. While Penn State will still be involved in the new project, shifting data collection to Gateway Research Park means students will be able to engage in all portions of the research throughout the year.

Neuroscience and Computing

Both projects have a common link in their focus on connections between cognitive neuroscience and computer science.

For example, the NSF grant examines cognitive aspects of personal computing and cybersecurity. Overman and her fellow investigators from N.C. A&T will examine the decisions people make about updating their computer’s software, and what factors – particularly the computer user’s age and cognitive load – may contribute to those decisions. The researchers will look at variations in the type of language used to alert users about the need to update, as well as the timing of the delivery of those messages.

Is it better to send it when they are involved in a different task? Does a dire warning have more impact than a subtle suggestion? The research has important implications for designing software and developing strategies to promote good cybersecurity practices, since failure to apply software updates is a common cause of critical security vulnerabilities.

In this photo from fall 2016, Overman works with her students on brain analysis. Photo courtesy of Martin Springborg

For the NIH-sponsored project, a primary emphasis is on computational aspects of how the brain processes memory information differently in younger and older adults. Overman’s initial NIH-supported research focused on how specific brain areas engaged differently in memory for associations, depending on the way associations are presented. The goal was to tap into those differences to help people remember combined pieces of information, such as what time of day to take a prescription or the date of a doctor’s appointment.

While previously the research was focused on the hippocampus and nearby structures in the brain, this new work will look more broadly at how the entire brain contributes to learning, storing, and retrieving new information. In order to do that, Overman and her colleagues will use advanced computational analysis techniques to shed light on how multiple brain areas work together to represent information in memory.

“The big shift here is that we’re looking at the whole brain and networks in the brain rather than focusing on what individual parts of the brain are active during a particular action,” Overman said. “We want to know how all the parts of the brain are working together.”

Analyzing these patterns of will rely on approaches such as multi-voxel pattern analysis (MVPA) and graph theory, which are closely related to computer science. For example, MVPA, which is based on machine learning and pattern recognition, involves training software to recognize particular patterns of neural activity so that when it encounters an unknown pattern, it can determine what that activity represents.

Overman notes that the analysis can tell her that a person was retrieving old information or encoding new information. It can determine whether a person was looking at an object or looking at a face. Such determinations can help shed light on how the different regions of the brain are connected in a functional sense.

Using these computational tools, the research team will examine how younger and older adults’ brains differ in their ability to link multiple information patterns. This includes the ability to link patterns of information that are presented to different senses — for example, sights and sounds. It also includes the ability to link old and new information by detecting a change in something that was learned previously.

It is important to understand how the brain can integrate new information without that new information interfering with information and associations a person has already learned, Overman explains. “We will be comparing the patterns of brain activity when people are learning with the patterns we see when they are retrieving that information and updating it with new information,” Overman said.

Student Mentoring

Overman said she is excited at the opportunities that both of these lines of research are creating for students. For both, students will be able to have paid research-related jobs on campus that will immerse them in the undergraduate research experience in innovative fields. “It gives access to students who might not normally have that access because they are not forced to choose between a paying job and an undergraduate research experience,” Overman explained.

Additionally, the computational focus in both projects will empower students to develop a blend of skills in traditional scientific reasoning and twenty-first century technology. Overman added, “computational neuroscience and big data are the future of these fields, so it’s critical to have students become exposed to them early.”

In addition to providing enhanced learning for students, Elon’s undergraduate mentoring environment is a scientific asset for these projects. “Not everyone realizes how involved students are in this important research,” said Overman. “For both of these grants, the comments we received from the scientific review panels talked about the strengths of working with undergraduates. It was clear to them that mentoring students is very important to us and brings an important element to the science that we are doing.”