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NSF-Funded Project Aims to Help People Reach Their Potential

NSF grant will support research using brain imaging to help study individual differences

by Ohio State University
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COLUMBUS, Ohio – What if a brain scan and other assessments of an incoming college student could lead to a personalized plan to maximize her strengths in and out of the classroom, while finding ways to shore up her weaknesses?

It may seem like science fiction, but this is the ultimate goal of a research project at Ohio State University that recently received a National Science Foundation grant.

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“We want to improve people’s well-being and quality of life,” said Zhong-Lin Lu, professor of psychology and director of Ohio State’s Center for Cognitive and Behavioral Brain Imaging (CCBBI).

“It’s a lofty goal. We’ve got a long way to go and this is just the first step.”

Lu and his colleagues, Mark Steyvers of the University of California, Irvine, and Brandon Turner of Ohio State, received one of 16 new NSF awards totaling $13.1 million that are designed to answer fundamental questions in brain science.

Zhong-Lin LuZhong-Lin LuPhoto courtesy of Ohio State UniversityLu’s project stems from the simple fact that people vary tremendously in their cognitive abilities and dispositions, which shapes their decision-making preferences and emotional competencies.

But what is not known is the “neural underpinnings” of these differences. In other words, are there markers we could see inside the brain that could indicate a particular cognitive strength or disability? Could we use images from fMRI scans to “see” these markers?

If so, that would be the first step toward developing individualized plans to help people maximize their potential.

“Researchers in cognitive neuroscience usually take about 20 people, study them and say, ‘On average, this is what happens to your brain.’ They come up with very interesting conclusions that are however not very informative about individuals,” Lu said.

“What I want to do is use brain imaging to study individuals; to learn what is good, what is wrong, why this person is having a disorder, or why they are so happy. But to understand individuals, you have to collect huge amounts of data.”

Lu is an affiliated faculty member with Ohio State’s Translational Data Analytics program, a new entity that focuses on using big data to solve societal problems.

The CCBBI has already collected data for 250 people. The goal is to collect data from another 250 individuals.

In addition to receiving scans in the fMRI, the research participants complete detailed questionnaires and behavioral reports.

The researchers hope that with the neuroimaging data and the cognitive and behavioral measures, they can begin to predict individuals’ cognitive performance in real-world situations.

“Can we use measures like IQ and personality tests, along with the MRI data, to predict if a freshman will graduate? To predict what kind of job he will get?” Lu said.

“If we can, then we can begin to help intervene early to help people maximize their potential. We can individualize treatments and come up with ways to help people in real life. That’s our ultimate goal.”