Tuesday, July 12, 2016
UI researchers to study critical component of cognitive development
By: Sara Diedrich  |  2016.06.13  |  02:19 pm
A team of faculty members affiliated with the University of Iowa’s DeLTA Center has been awarded a $5.77 million grant from the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development to study a critical component of cognitive development known as categorization.
The five-year research project, Development and Neurobiology of Categorization, will investigate the relationship between the developing brain and developing cognition and advance the understanding of categorization, the process in which ideas and objects are recognized, differentiated, and understood—such as when children learn to divide the world into categories like dogs, trees, cars, and books.
“Categorization is a key intellectual ability of organisms to extract general knowledge from many different specific perceptual experiences,” says Ed Wasserman, Stuit Professor of Experimental Psychology in the UI College of Liberal Arts and Sciences and one of the investigators on the research team. “The ability to categorize dramatically reduces the demands on an organism’s brain systems because not all individual stimuli need to be committed to memory, thereby providing real cognitive efficiency.”
In addition to expanding the scientific understanding of typical cognitive development, researchers will also study innovative approaches to early childhood education, as well as contribute to diagnosing and treating instances of atypical cognitive development, such as autism and Williams syndrome, a developmental disorder that affects many parts of the body and is characterized by mild to moderate intellectual disability or learning problems, unique personality characteristics, distinctive facial features, and cardiovascular problems.
Finally, researchers hope to identify both behavioral and genetic predictors of developmental disabilities and devise new techniques for enhancing the categorization skills of children with these disabilities.
“The project hopes to achieve several aims,” says Wasserman. “First, to describe changes in categorization behavior across the lifespan of a person; second, to link those behavioral changes to changes in the person’s brain development; and third, to develop animal models of category learning to see if they might be used for examining the brain mechanisms of categorization.”
The animal model work will be conducted at the UI, where researchers will devise behavioral methods that closely parallel the human work that will take place at the Ohio State University.
“The work will involve nonverbal visual stimuli with which neither the human nor animal subjects will have had prior experience to permit meaningful comparisons to be drawn,” Wasserman says. “The animal work will focus on regions of the brain that are believed to be critical in performing complex cognitive activities, including the prefrontal cortex, which in humans continues to develop into early adulthood.”
The DeLTA Center is an interdisciplinary research community at the UI focused on understanding how learning and development interact and affect the behavior and cognition of humans and other animals. Formed in 2009 with faculty members from UI’s Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences and the Department of Communication Sciences and Disorders, the center has grown to include faculty from more than 10 departments, as well as nearly 40 faculty affiliates from other academic institutions.
Other investigators on the categorization research team are John Freeman, UI professor of psychology; Christopher Bartlett, Jay Myung, Brandon Turner, and Vladimir Sloutsky, all of the Ohio State University; and Brad Love of University College London.
Sara Diedrich, Office of Strategic Communication, 319-384-0073