Duke Research Blog

Following the people and events that make up the research community at Duke.

Category: Behavior/Psychology Page 1 of 18

How Many Neuroscientists Does it Take to Unlock a Door?

Duke’s Summer Neuroscience Program kicked off their first week of research on June 4 with a standard morning meeting: schedules outlined, expectations reiterated, students introduced. But that afternoon, psychology and neuroscience professor Thomas Newpher and undergraduate student services coordinator Tyler Lee made the students play a very unconventional get-to-know-you game — locking them in a room with only one hour to escape.

Not the usual team building activity: Students in Duke’s 8-week Summer Neuroscience Program got to know each other while locked in a room.

Bull City Escape is one of a few escape rooms in the Triangle, but the only one to let private groups from schools or companies or families to come and rent out the space exclusively. Like a live-in video game, you’re given a dramatic plot with an inevitably disastrous end: The crown jewels have been stolen! The space ship is set to self-destruct! Someone has murdered Mr. Montgomery, the eccentric millionaire! With minutes to go, your rag-tag bunch scrambles to uncover clues to unlock locks that yield more clues to yet more locks and so on, until finally you discover the key code that releases you back to the real world.

This summer’s program dips into many subfields, in hopes of pushing the the 16 students (most of them seniors) toward an honors thesis. According to Newpher, three quarters of the senior neuroscience students who participated in the 2018 SNP program graduated with distinction last May.

From “cognitive neuro” that addresses how behavior and psychology interacts with your neural network, to “translational neuro” which puts neurology in a medical context, to “molecular and cellular neuro” that looks at neurons’ complex functions, these students are handling subjects that are not for the faint of heart or dim of mind.

But do lab smarts carry over when you’re locked in a room with people you hardly know, a monitor bearing a big, red timer, blinking its way steadily toward zero?

Apparently so. The “intrepid team of astronauts” that voyaged into space were faced with codes and locks and hidden messages, all deciphered with seven minutes left on the clock, while the “crack-team of detectives” facing the death of Mr. Montgomery narrowly escaped, with less than a minute to spare. At one point, exasperated and staring at a muddled bunch of seemingly meaningless files, a student looked at Dr. Newpher and asked, “Is this a lesson in writing a methods section?”

The Bull City Escape website lists creative problem-solving, focus, attention to detail, and performance under pressure as a few of the skills a group hones by playing their game — all of which are relevant to this group of students, many of whom are pre-med. But hidden morals about clarity and strength-building aside, Newpher picked the activity because it allows different sides of people’s personalities to come out: “When you’re put in that stressful environment and the clock is ticking, it’s a great way to really get to know each other fast.”

By Vanessa Moss
By Vanessa Moss

Pot Not So Harmless for Teens

Marijuana is becoming legalized and decriminalized to the point that more than 63 percent of Americans have access to medical and recreational cannabis. But researchers and policy experts still don’t know very much about the long-term health effects.

The 2019 annual symposium by Duke’s Center on Addiction & Behavior Change,  “Altered States of Cannabis Regulation: Informing Policy with Science,” provided some scientific answers. Madeline Meier, assistant professor of Psychology at Arizona State University and a former Duke post-doc, spoke about her longitudinal research projects that offer critical insights about the long-term effects of cannabis use.

Meier investigates the relationship between cannabis use and IQ in a 38-year-long study that has been collecting data on a group of 1,000 people born in New Zealand since birth. Longitudinal studies like this that follow the same group of individuals across their lifespan are vital to understanding the effects of extended cannabis use on the human body, but they are difficult to conduct and keep funded. The 95 percent retention rate of this study is quite impressive and provides much-needed data.


Madeline Meier of Arizona State University

The researchers had tested the babies’ IQ at early childhood, then conducted regular IQ and cannabis use assessments between the ages of 18 and 38. They found that participants who heavily used weed for extended periods of time experienced a significant IQ drop, as well as other impairments in learning and memory skills. Specifically, users who had three or more clinical diagnoses of cannabis dependency, defined as compulsive use despite physical, legal, or social problems caused by the drug, showed an average 6-point IQ drop over the years. Those who only tried the drug a few times showed no decline, and those who never used weed showed a 1-point IQ increase.

Notably, however, the results depended on age of onset and level of use. Meier emphasized that her results do not support the common misconception that any amount of weed use can immediately lead to IQ decline. To the contrary, Meier’s team found that short-term, low-level use did not have any effect on IQ; only heavy users suffered the negative effects. The age of onset of cannabis use was critical, too: Adolescents were more vulnerable to the drug’s harms, with study participants who started using as adolescents showing an 8-point drop in IQ points. Given what we know about adolescents’ affinity for risky behavior, specifically around experimentation with drugs, this finding is particularly worrisome.

In addition to causing cognitive impairment, persistent cannabis use jeopardizes people’s psychosocial functioning as well. The Dunedin longitudinal study has also revealed that people who continued to use weed despite multiple dependency diagnoses experienced downward social mobility, relationship problems, antisocial workplace behavior, financial difficulties, and even higher numbers of traffic convictions. In short, social life is likely to be perilous for heavy weed users.

While some have suggested that the harmful effects of weed might be caused not by the drug itself but by the reduced years of education, low socioeconomic status, mental health problems, or simultaneous use of tobacco, alcohol or other drugs among weed users, Meier and her team found that the impairments persisted even when these factors were accounted for. Cannabis alone was responsible for the effects reflected in Meier’s research. In fact, there is limited evidence for the opposite causational link: weed use may be the cause of mental health problems rather than being caused by them. One study found a weak correlation between years of marijuana use and depression, but Meier was careful to point out that it would take “a lot of cannabis use to lead to clinically diagnosed depression.”

Given this data, Meier called on the policy-makers in the room to focus their efforts on delaying the onset of cannabis use in youth and encouraging cessation (especially among adolescents). In appealing to the researchers, she underlined the need for additional longitudinal studies into the mechanisms and parameters of cannabis use that produce long-term impairments.

As public and political support of marijuana legalization grows, we must be careful not to underestimate the dangers of the drug. Without knowing the full extent of the risks and benefits of weed, policy-makers cannot effectively promote public health, safety, and social equity.

Guest Post by Deniz Ariturk

The Power of Bass Connections Teamwork

Does yoga improve emotional regulation? Why don’t youth vote in elections? Can regular exercise combat anxiety and depression? How do we encourage girls to pursue careers in STEM fields? These are some of the questions explored by Bass Connections teams at Duke this year. After a year of hard work, several teams presented their answers in 5-minute flash talks at the EHDx event on April 9, and their audience was very impressed by their research.

Karina Heaton and Caleb Cooke present on their Bass Connections project, Wired for Learning

Bass Connections is a program at Duke that allows students to engage with real world problems, and apply their classroom knowledge to solve problems in society. Accepted students spend a year or more working with an interdisciplinary team of faculty, undergraduates, and graduate students on a project within the five theme areas of Bass Connections: Brain & Society, Information, Society & Culture, Global Health, Education & Human Development, and Energy & Environment.

The eleven teams that presented at EHDx were part of the Education and Human Development theme, so they spent the year exploring questions related to advancing educational systems, or exploring other areas in support of positive life outcomes for youth. Each team selected representatives to speak for five minutes on the work they have accomplished this year, and the event became a competition when the moderators announced the audience would vote for the best talk at the end.

The winning talk was presented by Bruny Kenou, a Duke undergraduate

The winner of this competition was Bruny Kenou, presenting on behalf of the Virtual Avatar Coaches project. The goal of this team was to create a peer to peer coaching program to support college students struggling with mental health. This project aims to fight stigma with a platform that allows students to send an anonymous text and receive immediate help from a peer. Peer coaches will take a semester-long course to prepare for their role in the program, and the hope is for this to eventually improve the lives of many students suffering from a fear of stigmas and labels.

The talks were followed by a reception and poster session. The team that took the blue ribbon this time was Mindfulness in Human Development. The objective of this team is to improve the lives of middle school students in Durham with a yoga and mindfulness intervention during the school day. The team has found that taking a break for yoga in the middle of the day has had positive effects on empathy, emotional regulation, and body image on the young students. Did someone say namaste?

The winner of the poster contest was the Mindfulness in Human Development Team

Honestly, I didn’t vote — I couldn’t pick a favorite! From designing a new and inclusive curriculum for elementary schools and helping kids learn computer science to investigating educational policy in Brazil and promoting awareness of female philosophers throughout history, each presentation was so impressive. It was easy to see that all of these teams have all been hard at work to affect positive change in society. If they can do this much in under a year, who knows what these talented undergraduates will accomplish in a lifetime!

Post by Anne Littlewood, Trinity ’21

The Adolescent Brain Isn’t so Bad, Really

Adriana Galván, PHD (Photo from the Duke Center for Cognitive Neuroscience Colloquium Series, DIBS)

More often than not, teenagers are portrayed in the media as troublesome, emotionally reactive, and difficult to deal with. They are widely considered to be risk-takers, and prone to making poor choices.

But is taking risks necessarily a bad thing? Should adolescents be seen as bad people? Adriana Galván, PHD, doesn’t think so.

Galván is a neuroscientist and professor at UCLA, where she studies sleep, emotion, learning, stress, and decision-making in the adolescent brain. She came to Duke on Friday, April 5 as part of the DIBS Center for Cognitive Neuroscience’s Colloquium Series.

Humans have an extended period of adolescence, because our brains take a very long time to complete development, Galván said. Adolescence is currently defined as the period between the onset of puberty and the end of developmental plasticity. During this time, teen brains are constantly changing, and these physical changes are linked to socioemotional changes in behavior.

The Brain’s Reward System: meso-limbic pathway shown in green (Photo from WikiCommons: Oscar Arias-Carrión1, Maria Stamelou, Eric Murillo-Rodríguez, Manuel Menéndez-González and Ernst Pöppel)

One of the most prominent differences between adolescent and adult brains can be found in the brain’s reward system. Research has shown that adolescents have higher levels of activation in the mesolimbic system and ventral striatum regions of the brain, areas that are very important in reward processing.

Galván believes that this greater reward system excitability in teenagers may explain why they engage in more risky behavior than adults.

A study done by Galván and her former student, Emily Barkley-Levenson, investigated the stereotype of risk-taking in adolescents. Sure enough, when tested against adults in a gambling game, adolescents were more likely to take risks. However, a closer look at the data suggests that this might not be such a bad thing.

For disadvantageous and neutral gambles, adolescents didn’t differ from adults at all. But when it came to advantageous gambles, adolescents were far more likely than adults to accept the risk. This suggests that risk-taking behavior in teens might actually be adaptive, and put young people at an advantage when it comes to making the choices that lead to innovation and discovery.

Adolescents were also shown to exhibit better learning from outcomes than adults. Adolescence is a period of time where young people are constantly receiving feedback from their environment, and learning about the world around them from social interactions and relationships.

Another of Galván’s students, Kaitlyn Breiner, found that adolescents experienced high levels of emotional distress when their expectations of social feedback were violated. This was true regardless of whether the participants were receiving positive or negative unexpected feedback; they were just as distressed by an unexpected compliment as they were by an unexpected insult. Galván hypothesizes this is because relief is a very powerful emotion, and adolescent participants were looking to find comfort in a validation of their beliefs about their social relationships. It’s comforting to feel like your interpretation of the social world is correct, especially during the shifting world of adolescence.

Adolescents learn about their world through social interactions with friends (Photo from Wikimedia Commons: Glenn Waters)

Galván and her team have also investigated the role of mesolimbic activation in mediating distress.

Following the 2016 US Presidential election, participants in Los Angeles were asked if they felt personally affected by the election. The research team then measured the activation in their nucleus accumbens (a region of the mesolimbic system that plays a role in reward) and looked for symptoms of depression. Of those who reported feeling affected by the outcome of the election, Galván found that people with high activation in their nucleus accumbens had less depressive symptoms than those with low activation in this area. This suggests that high activation of the reward system plays a role in mediating depression. If adolescent brains experience these higher levels of reward system activation, might this protect them from depression?

The bottom line is, adolescents are not bad people, and they aren’t stupid either. In some ways, they may even be smarter than adults. Teens are better at learning from outcomes, more likely to take advantageous risks, and they experience higher levels of activation in their reward system, which could have important implications for resilience. The research shows that teenagers are far more capable – and smarter – than the world believes. Let’s give them a little more credit.

Post by Anne Littlewood, Trinity ’21

Starting Over in New Neighborhoods Helps Ex-Offenders Stay Out of Jail

Are prisoners who go back to their old neighborhoods upon release more or less likely to get arrested again than those who move? That’s the question
University of Oxford sociology professor David Kirk posed in a seminar he gave at Duke March 28. Recidivism is the tendency of a convicted criminal to re-offend, and Kirk wondered if the risk of recidivism might be lower when former prisoners reside in a geographic area different from where they lived prior to incarceration.

           To test his hypothesis, Kirk first designed a study in New Orleans following Hurricane Katrina. A full 72 percent of dwellings in New Orleans were damaged in some manner following the hurricane, but the neighborhoods that were hit the hardest tended to be areas that were socioeconomically disadvantaged and home to ethnic minorities. These also tended to be areas to which released prisoners would have returned. Realizing they would not be able to return because of the damage, Kirk designed a study to compare the likelihood of recidivism in people who moved to a different parish pre vs. post-Katrina. The results of the study showed that 50 percent of people were induced to move post-Katrina, compared to 25 percent before Katrina. Parolees who moved to a new neighborhood were less likely to be rearrested.

            Based on the Moving to Opportunity (MTO) project, a government-funded housing mobility program in the 1990’s for poor families in five cities, Kirk decided to build on his Katrina results to launch a pilot program in Maryland called MOVE, or Maryland Opportunity through Vouchers Experiment. In the first design, the treatment group received a six-month housing subsidy upon release, but it had to be used in a new jurisdiction. The control group received a six-month subsidy in their home jurisdiction. In the results for this experiment, no one in either group that received free housing was rearrested. However, in the control group where released prisoners received no free housing and returned to their old neighborhoods, 22 percent were rearrested.

           The second design gave no subsidy for staying in the home jurisdiction, but incentivized moving to a new city with free housing. In the Maryland experiment, the ‘home’ jurisdiction was Baltimore, and the treatment group housing subsidy was in Prince George’s County, about forty-five minutes away in neighboring Washington, D.C. The pilot implemented four prisons in the state of Maryland and male prisoners hailing from Baltimore were eligible, with the exception of sex offenders.

Graph courtesy of David Kirk, University of Oxford

In the second design where the treatment group got free housing in a new environment and the control group moved to their old communities with no free housing, 22 percent of the treatment group was rearrested compared to 57 percent of the control group. Kirk explained that this second design is more practical than the first because only one group has to receive subsidized housing, thus it is half the cost of the first design. However, since the treatment group gets free housing and moves in the second design, it is harder to tease out the exact reason for lower rearrest rates. Other general trends Kirk has found through his research are that younger individuals who have been imprisoned tend to benefit more from district changes than older individuals. There is also a much larger gap between ‘movers’ and ‘stayers’ in rearrest rates for women, so Kirk hopes to conduct future studies involving female released prisoners.

Post by Victoria Priester

Victoria Priester

‘Death is a Social Construct’

Of the few universal human experiences, death remains the least understood. Whether we avoid its mention or can’t stop thinking about it, whether we are terrified or mystified by it, none of us know what death is really like. Turns out, neither do the experts who spend every day around it.

Nobody who sees this guy reports back, so we can only guess.

This was the overarching lesson of Dr. Robert Truog’s McGovern Lecture at Trent Semans Center for Health Education, titled “Defining Death: Persistent Problems and Possible Solutions.”

Dr. Truog is this year’s recipient of the McGovern Prize, an award honoring individuals who have made outstanding contributions to the art and  science of medicine. Truog is a professor of medical ethics, anesthesiology and pediatrics and director of the center for bioethics at Harvard Medical School. He is intimately familiar with death, not only through his research and writings, but through his work as a pediatric intensive care doctor at Boston Children’s Hospital. Truog is also the author of the current national guidelines for end-of-life care in the intensive care unit.

In short, Truog knows a lot about death. Yet certain questions about the end of life remain elusive even to him. In his talk, he spoke about the biological, sociological, and ethical challenges involved in drawing the boundary between life and death. While some of these challenges have been around for as long as humans have, certain ones are novel, brought on by technological advancements in medicine that allow us to prolong the functioning of vital organs, mainly the brain and the heart.

The “irreversible cessation of function” of these organs results in brain and cardiac death, respectively. When both occur together, the patient is declared biologically dead. When they don’t, such as when all brain function except for those that support the patient’s digestive system is lost, for instance, the patient can be legally alive without any hope of recovery of consciousness.

Robert Truog teaching (Harvard photo)

According to Truog, it is in these moments of life after the loss of almost every brain function that we realize “death is a social construct.” This claim likely sounds counterintuitive, if not entirely nonsensical, as dying is the moment we have the least control over our biology. What Dr. Truog means, however, is that as technology continues to mend failures of biology that would have once been fatal, our social and philosophical understanding of dying, what he calls “person death” will increasingly separate from the end of the body’s biological function.  

Biologically, death is the moment when homeostasis, the body’s internal state of equilibrium including body temperature, pH levels and fluid balance, fails and entropy prevails.

Personhood, however, is not mere homeostasis. Dr. Truog cited Robert Veatch, ethicist at Georgetown University, in defining person death as the “irreversible loss of that which is essentially significant to the nature of man.” For those patients who are kept alive by ventilators and who have no hope of regaining consciousness, that essentially significant nature appears to have been lost.

Nonetheless, for loved ones, signs like spontaneous breathing, which can occur in patients in persistent vegetative state, intuitively feel like signs of life. This intuitive sign of life is what made Jahi McMath’s parents refuse an Oakland California hospital’s declaration that their daughter was dead. A ventilator kept the 13-year-old breathing, even though she had been declared brain-dead. After much conflict, McMath’s parents moved her to a hospital in New Jersey, one of just two states where families can reject brain death if it does not align with their religious beliefs. In the end, McMath had two death certificates that were five years apart.


Muslim cemetery at sunset in Marrakech Morocco.
(Mohamed Boualam via Wikimedia commons)

The emotional toll of such an ordeal is immense, as the media outcry around McMath made more than clear. There are more concrete, quantifiable costs to extending biological function beyond the end of personhood: the U.S. is facing an organ shortage. As people are kept on life support for longer periods, it is going to become increasingly difficult for patients who desperately need organs to find donors.

In closing, Dr. Truog reminded us that “in the spectrum between alive and dead, we set the threshold… Death is not a binary state, but a complex social choice.” People will likely continue to disagree about where we should set the threshold, especially as technology develops.

However, if we want to have a thoughtful discussion that respects the rights, wishes, and values of patients, loved ones, and everybody else who will one day face death, we need to first agree that there is a choice to be made.

Guest Post by Deniz Ariturk, Science & Society graduate student

Open Communication is Key to Research in Schools

One of the things that excited me most about coming to Duke was the amount of research being done on campus, from theoretical physics to biological field work or cultural anthropology. I recently had the opportunity to attend a panel about conducting research in schools. As someone who has only ever done biological and chemistry-based lab work, I was eager to learn more about how research is conducted in other disciplines.

Doing research in schools is particularly challenging because it includes so many parties. The research goals must align with the school district’s priorities, collaboration must occur with the teachers, administrators and researchers about the design of the study and feasibility of implementations, and there must be cooperation from the students who are often young children unaware of the research going on.

Ultimately, the core role of schools is to educate children. Thus, in order to conduct research, the team needs to find a way to provide a clear benefit to schools for participation and make sure of protecting instruction time, reducing the burden on teachers.

The main purpose of the panel was to help Duke researchers better understand how to effectively interact and conduct research in schools. This was very well reflected in the four panelists Amy Davis, Cherry Johnson, Michele Woodson, and Holle Williams who each gave short, individual presentations.

Essentially,  the goal of a school is to provide high-quality education to the students. So to conduct research, researchers must find a way to make their goals applicable to the teachers.

Davis, the coordinator of grants, research, and development in Durham Public Schools explained that because of their large minority population, researchers often want to partner with them. Davis explained that researchers should strive to work collaboratively in a way that will yield what the researcher needs but also benefit the school. The focus of the teachers and administrators is not on research and they are not experts in things like research design.

She urged researchers to first reach out to her because she knows which schools would be a viable fit and can help provide the language to talk directly to them. Furthermore, she addressed that researchers sometimes need to have the flexibility to alter the research design when working in schools.

Johnson, the Director of Research and Grant Development in Johnston County Public Schools began by explaining how her district is driven by principles of relationships, relevance, and innovation.

She added that they are  “always interested in collab opportunities between universities and JCPS.”

However, studies that can aid in furthering their priorities, namely innovation, teacher recruitment and social and emotional learning will have a higher likelihood of being conducted successfully.

What makes the county so unique is that they are almost two districts within one.

“We still have notable lines between the haves and have nots,” Johnson added referring to large the socioeconomic differences between the Raleigh commuters and farm families.

To address some of these challenges, JCPS are participating in many partnerships with universities like NC State, UNC and Duke including a study with Dr. Leslie M. Babinski, associate research professor in the Sanford School of Public Policy.

Dr. Babinski conducting research in schools
Dr. Babinski working with students

Ultimately, university research is not a school district’s top priority. However, Woodson added that if the research has the ability to aid the school in accomplishing their goals then it increases the likelihood of success for both parties.

The last speaker was Holle Williams the Director of Main Campus Institutional Review Board at Duke University. Most schools require the approval of Duke’s IRB, which aims to protect the rights and welfare of human research subjects. Williams explained that their goal is to understand the intent of the researcher’s project.

“We want to make sure that what you are doing, what you are contemplating meets the definition of research” Williams stated.

Understanding intent allows then to distinguish research from other kinds of projects where research can help the school but also must contribute to the universal knowledge of a given education based topic.

A big emphasis of the talk was open communication. Both the school representatives and director of IRB highlighted that in order to most efficiently carry out a research project, the researchers should make sure to reach out to both the schools as well as main campus IRB. Through effective communication, strong partnerships can be built between the Duke community and local schools to conduct research that benefits both parties.

Post by Anna Gotskind

The Costs of Mental Effort

Every day, we are faced with countless decisions regarding cognitive control, or the process of inhibiting automatic or habitual responses in order to perform better at a task.

Amitai Shenhav, PhD, of Brown University, and his lab are working on understanding the factors that influence this decision making process. Having a higher level cognitive control is what allows us to complete hard tasks like a math problem or a dense reading, so we may expect that the optimal practice is to exert a high level of control at all times.

Shenhav’s lab explores motivation and decision making related to cognitive control.

Experimental performance shows this is not the case: people tend to choose easier over hard tasks, require more money to complete harder tasks, and exert more mental effort as the reward value increases. These behaviors all suggest that the subjects’ automatic state is not to be at the highest possible level of control.

Shenhav’s research has centered around why we see variation in level of control. Because cognitive control is a costly process, there must be a limit to how much we can exert. These costs can be understood as tradeoffs between level of control and other brain functions and consequences of negative affective changes related to difficult tasks, like stress.

To understand how people make decisions about cognitive control in real time, Shenhav has developed an algorithm called the Expected Value of Control (EVC) model, which focuses on how individuals weigh the costs and benefits of increasing control.

Employing this model has helped Shenhav and his colleagues identify situations in which people are likely to choose to invest a lot of cognitive control. In one study, by varying whether the reward was paired only with a correct response or was given randomly, Shenhav simulated variability in efficacy of control. They found that people learn fairly quickly whether increasing their efforts will increase the likelihood of earning the reward and adjust their control accordingly: people are more likely to invest more effort when they learn that there is a correlation between their own effort and the likelihood of reward than when rewards are distributed independent of performance.

Another study explored how we adjust our strategies following difficult tasks. Experiments with cognitive control often rely on paradigms like the Stroop task, where subjects are asked to identify a target cue (color) while being presented with a distractor (incongruency of the word with its text color). Shenhav found that when subjects face a difficult trial or make a mistake, they adjust by decreasing attention to the distractor.

The Stroop task is a classic experimental design for understanding cognitive control. Successful completion of Stroop task 3 requires overriding your reflex to read the word in cases where the text and its color are mismatched.

A final interesting finding from Shenhav’s work tells us that part of the value of hard work may be in the work itself: people value rewards following a task in a way that scales to the effort they put into the task.

Zapping Your Brain Is Dope

Emerging technology has created a new doping technique for athletic performance that is, as of now, perfectly legal.

Coined “neuro-doping,” this method sends electric current through one’s brain to facilitate quicker learning, enhanced muscular strength, and improved coordination. Use of this electronic stimulus has taken off in the sports world as a replacement for other doping methods banned by the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA). Because it’s relatively new, WADA has yet to establish rules around neuro-doping. Plus, it’s virtually undetectable. Naturally, a lot of athletes are taking advantage of it.

Image result for doping

One specific method of neuro-doping is known as Transcranial Direct-Current Stimulation (tDCS). It works by sending a non-invasive and painless electrical current through the brain for around three to 20 minutes, in order to excite the brain’s cortex, ultimately increasing neuroplasticity (Park). This can be done commercially via a headset like device for $200.

Image result for transcranial direct current stimulation headset
The Halo Sport

Weight lifters, sprinters, pitchers, and skiers are just some of many types of athletes who can benefit from tCDS. By practicing with these headphones on, new neural pathways are constructed to help their bodies achieve peak performance. Dr. Greg Appelbaum, director of Opti Lab and the Brain Stimulation Research Center, says it’s especially useful for athletes where technique and motor skills triumph — such as a sprinter getting out of the blocks or an Olympic ski jumper hanging in the air. Top-tier athletes are pushing that fine limit of what the human body can accomplish, but neuro-doping allows them to take it one step further.

Neuro-doping has other applications, too. Imagine insanely skilled Air Force pilots, surgeons with exceptionally nimble hands, or soldiers with perfect aim. tCDS is being used to make progress in things like Alzheimer’s and memory function because of its impact on cognitive functioning in the forms of increased attention span and memory. You could even learn the guitar faster.

In this sort of context, it’s a no brainer that neuro-doping should be taken advantage of. But how ethical is it in sports?

The precedent for WADA to ban a substance or technique has been based on meeting two of the following three criteria: (1) drugs or tools that likely enhance performance to secure a winning edge; (2) drugs or tools that place athletes’ health at risk; (3) any substances or techniques that ruin the “spirit-of-sport” (Park). Lots of research has shown tCDS is pretty legit. As for health risks, tCDS is still in the experimental stage, so not much can be said about its side effects. Ethically, it causes a lot of controversy.

Many issues come into play when thinking about allowing athletes to neuro-dope. Given its similarities with other popular drugs, tCDS could introduce unfair advantages. Furthermore, not everyone may have access to the technology, and not everyone may want to use it. However, it’s important to note that sports already have unfair advantages. Access to things like proper coaching and nutrition may not be a reality for everyone. Sports are just inherently competitive.

Back when baseball players doped, it was awesome to watch them crush balls out of the park. Reintroducing performance enhancement through tCDS could mean we start seeing mountain bikers launching insane air and world records being smattered. The human body could achieve newfound heights.

Are the benefits worth it? Does neuro-doping ruin the “spirit of the sport?” Regardless of these important questions, tCDS is a fascinating scientific discovery that could make a difference in this world. So, what do you think?

Will Sheehan
Post by Will Sheehan

Park, Cogent Social Sciences (2017), 3: 1360462
https://doi.org/10.1080/23311886.2017.1360462

Dolphin Smarts

Imagine you are blindfolded and placed into a pool of water with a dolphin. The dolphin performs a movement, such as spinning in a circle, or swimming in a zig-zag pattern, and your task is to imitate this movement, without having seen it. Ready, go. 

Sound impossible? While it may not be possible for a human to do this with any accuracy, a dolphin would have no problem at all. When cognitive psychologist and marine mammal scientist Kelly Jaakkola gave this task to the dolphins at the Dolphin Research Center in Florida, they had no problem at all copying a human’s behavior. So how did they do it? Jaakkola thinks they used a combination of active listening and echolocation.

How smart are dolphins? (Photo from Wikimedia Commons: Stuart Burns)

Humans love to claim the title of “smartest” living animal. But what does this mean? How do we define intelligence? With a person’s GPA? Or SAT score? By assigning a person a number that places him or her somewhere on the scale from zero to Einstein? 

Honestly, this is problematic. There are many different types of intelligence that we forget to consider. For example, Do you know that five is less than seven? Can you remember the location of an object when you can’t see it? Can you mimic a behavior after watching it? Are you capable of cooperating to solve problems? Can you communicate effectively? All of these demonstrate different intelligent skills, many of which are observed in dolphins.

Needless to say, dolphins and humans are entirely different creatures. We have different body plans, different ways of interacting with the world, and different brains. It has been 90 million years since we shared a common ancestor, which is why the things we do have in common are so fascinating to researchers. 

Like us, dolphins understand ordinality. When presented with two novel boards with different numbers of dots, dolphins at the Dolphin Research Center chose the smaller number 83 percent of the time. But unlike us, they weren’t counting to solve this problem. When they were shown boards that represented consecutive numbers, the dolphins struggled, and often failed the task.

Similar to humans, dolphins understand that when objects are hidden from view, they still exist. At the Dolphin Research Center, they could easily remember the location of toy when a trainer hid it inside a bucket. However, unlike humans, dolphins couldn’t infer the movement of hidden objects. If the bucket was moved, the dolphins didn’t understand that the toy had moved with it.

Dr. Jaakkola presents to a packed room of Duke students

While they may not be physicists, Jaakkola has shown that dolphins are stellar cooperators, and amazing at synchronous tasks. When asked to press an underwater button at the same time as a partner, the dolphins pushed their buttons within 0.37 milliseconds of each other, even when they started at different times. As the earlier example shows, dolphins can also imitate incredibly well, and this skill is not limited to mimicking members of their own species. Even though humans have an entirely different body plan, dolphins can flexibly use their flipper in place of a hand, or their tail in place of legs, and copy human movements.

It is believed that dolphins evolved their smarts so that they could navigate the complex social world that they live in. As the researchers at the Dolphin Research Center have shown, they possess a wide array of intelligent abilities, some similar to humans and others entirely different from our own. “Dolphins are not sea people,” Jaakkola warned her audience, but that’s not to discount the fact that they are brilliant in their own way. 

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