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at the college of human ecology The brain is the most complex organ in the human body. It defines our personality, initiates movement, and governs how we behave. Yet for most of human history, the brain has remained a mystery. Today new research techniques allow scientists to peer inside the brain in action, leading to a wide range of discoveries in fields ranging from child development to economics to gerontology. Faculty, students, and staff at the College of Human Ecology are working at the forefront of this dynamic field, building collaborations among social, behavioral, and life sciences that are leading to new breakthroughs in understanding how people remember, imagine, make decisions, attain happiness, and react in emotional and social situations.

engaging students When Jeremy Ojalehto arrived at Cornell, he wanted to learn as much as he could about the neural mechanisms underlying human behavior. He joined the research team in Professor Valerie Reyna’s Laboratory for Rational Decision Making. Reyna investigates how adolescents make decisions including whether they have a heightened response to reward, whether they have difficulty delaying gratification, and how information should be presented to protect adolescents against unhealthy risk-taking. Ojalehto, a Hunter R. Rawlings III Presidential Research Scholar, works as a leader on Reyna’s neuroimaging team. He is a key player in a study using magnetic resonance imaging, or MRI, to show the brain activity that occurs when people are asked to make a risky decision — one component that is important in mapping how the brain works. “Studying the brain in the context of research has only increased my appreciation of its complexity,” Ojalehto said.

The neuroscience of decision-making Valerie Reyna, professor of Human Development and of Psychology, is investigating the neuroscience of risky decision-making — a field that holds great promise for understanding why adolescents are more likely to engage in behaviors like reckless driving and unprotected sex.

With a new neuroscience research grant from the National Institutes of Health (NIH), Reyna’s research team is teasing apart the factors that contribute to adolescent risky decision-making. Her research on medical decision-making has found that patients are not necessarily better informed when they are given complex facts and figures. Her findings are used to make practical suggestions for educators and medical providers on how to better communicate risk so that patients can make the most informed decisions.


in human ecology

neuroscience at the college of human ecology

Opening new doors to understanding human memory The science of memory is a growing field, and the research focus of several faculty members in the Department of Human Development. Nathan Spreng, a faculty member in Human Development, uses functional MRI to identify physiological traits in the brain that lead to dementia and help people develop memories about themselves. His work links memory for the past to imagination of the future, and to social memory — how we think about others. This research may ultimately inform diagnosis and treatment of brain disorders, such as autism. Professor Charles Brainerd, a developmental psychologist, is an expert in cognitive processes throughout the lifespan with a focus on how memory influences reasoning. Access to brain scanning equipment has allowed him to further delve into the relationship between memory processes and higher reasoning abilities, with implications for how dementia develops in aging adults, the best methods for interviewing crime witnesses, and how to collect credible information from children involved in criminal cases. And psychologist Eve De Rosa is exploring a new component in age-related dementia: changes in a brain chemical called acetylcholine that may prevent people from filtering out irrelevant information. If people can’t filter out information that is irrelevant, it prevents them from making new memories of important details. Her work shows how neural mechanisms of attention and learning interact in healthy patients and those suffering from dementia.

The intersection of emotion and cognition New research has demonstrated that emotions have wide-ranging effects on many aspects of our lives. They influence our perceptions and help to determine how people are able to cope with sickness, disease, and tragedy. Human Ecology faculty members are making new discoveries that establish important links between emotion and cognition in the brain. Among them, psychologist Adam Anderson focuses on how emotion sharpens perceptions and etches memories into the brain. His research illustrates how emotions help individuals successfully navigate their physical and social environments. Other Human Ecology faculty members are working to understand how positive emotions and interpersonal relationships impact behavioral and biological pathways, and how lifelong trajectories in people’s personality traits influence health-related behaviors across cultures. Initiatives in neuroscience complement research in aging and health; attention and visual search; autobiographical and eyewitness memory; mathematical and statistical modeling; and personality and personality disorders.

neuroscience at the college of human ecology

New facility and institute lead to new possibilities The college is advancing its neuroscience work by opening the new Cornell Magnetic Resonance Imaging Facility, which features a whole-body 3 Tesla (3T) MRI device that uses a powerful magnetic field to visualize the structure and function of brain tissue. The universitywide facility is supported by the National Institutes of Health National Center for Research Resources and is available to researchers throughout campus. Valerie Reyna, professor of Human Development and of Psychology, is the co-director for the center along with Yi Wang, professor of Biomedical Engineering and Radiology. The college also launched a new center — the Human Neuroscience Institute — to promote neuroscience research, education, and outreach programs within the Department of Human Development. The new facility and institute bring together psychologists, economists, engineers, neurobiologists, and human development researchers to study the brain and its changes throughout the life course.

a broad look into the future Understanding the inner workings of the brain is an important way to understand human behavior and improve public health. Looking toward Cornell’s 2015 sesquicentennial, now more than ever, support for this type of interdisciplinary work is essential. With a plan in place to recruit more faculty, staff, and students, high-impact collaborative research will continue to yield important knowledge — fostering innovative research and revolutionary discoveries to improve life for all. You can find more information about the university’s campaign to support these efforts — called Cornell Now — at

Improving lives by exploring and shaping human connections to natural, social, and built environments 2014.06.22 Issue


The brain is the most complex organ in the human body. It de nes our personality, initiates movement, and governs how we behave. Yet for mos...

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