How can past learning and experiences inform future decisions? What do different brain systems contribute to learning and decision-making? Can a better characterization of brain systems for learning improve our ability to understand brain disorders and identify lifestyles that enhance brain health? These three questions, each addressing a different level of inquiry—cognitive processes, brain systems, and clinical applications—drive current research in our lab. To answer these questions we employ a range of interdisciplinary methods from cognitive neuroscience including behavioral experiments, neuropsychological studies of clinical populations, functional brain imaging, genetics, and computational modeling. Our efforts to link brain and cognition focus on the striatum (within the basal ganglia) and its role in learning new associations, skills, and habits, and the hippocampus (within the medial temporal lobe) and its role in supporting new learning by providing cues about the context in which learning takes place and which aspects of a learning episode are most important to encode and store. Much of our research involves developing close relationships with communities both local and global that are affected by high rates of mental health disorders, and working with them to conduct community-based participatory research. This approach is consistent with our mission at Rutgers University-Newark’s to draw on our diverse strengths to integrate community engagement with scholarship and teaching across disciplinary boundaries. We currently have three primary research programs, each of which asks several questions:
(1) Sleep Effects on Learning and Decision-Making
Past research has shown that sleep facilitates a range of memory processes including retention of learned associations, gist learning, rule extraction, and the development of insight into hidden rules. However, significant gaps in knowledge exist in relation to the biological mechanisms that allow sleep to affect high-level cognitive functions, the different impact of sleep stages on emotional versus non-emotional memories, and whether overnight sleep mainly affects performance in the subsequent day, or does its influence continue over multiple days.
(2) Lifestyle, Aging and Prodromal Alzheimer’s disease (including the African-American Brain Health Initiative)
What are the lifestyle and genetic factors that influence individual differences in learning and memory across the lifespan, especially those capabilities that rely on striatal and hippocampal systems? Both striatal and hippocampal circuits change with aging, and hippocampal-region dysfunction is among the first brain regions affected in the earliest prodromal stage of Alzheimer’s disease.
African Americans are known to be at elevated risk for age-related cognitive decline and memory loss, exhibiting twice the rate of Alzheimer’s disease (AD) as the general population. However, insufficient data exists on the role of within-group heterogeneity in mediating individual differences among African Americans in their risk for cognitive decline and AD.
(3) Cognitive Components of Psychiatric and Neurological Disorders (including the Rutgers/Al-Quds Brain Research Exchange with the Palestinian Neuroscience Initiative).
Striatal and hippocampal dysfunction are found in several psychiatric and neurological disorders, including clinical depression (also known as major depressive disorder or MDD), Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and Parkinson’s disease. The projects below employ a mix of methods to understand how the striatum and hippocampus are affected in these disorders, how neurocognitive assessments of learning behaviors can reveal underlying heterogeneity, what happens when patients are treated with medications that alter brain chemicals (especially serotonin and dopamine), and how computational modeling helps us understand the links between brain, behavior, and psychopathology.
Mark Gluck is co-director of the Rutgers Memory Disorders Project, and publisher of the public health newsletter, Memory Loss and the Brain. He is the co-author of Gateway to Memory: An Introduction to Neural Network Models of the Hippocampus and Memory (MIT Press, 2001), and an undergraduate textbook,Learning and Memory: From Brain to Behavior (Worth Publishers, 2007). He has edited several other books and has published over 60 scientific journal articles. His awards include the Distinguished Scientific Award for Early Career Contributions from the American Psychological Society and the Young Investigator Award for Cognitive and Neural Sciences from the Office of Naval Research. In 1996, he was awarded a National Science Foundation Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers by President Bill Clinton.