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New website chronicles tales of collaborative research

New website chronicles tales of collaborative research

interdis_DSC_1526_Scope

One thing you notice working at Stanford is how close you are to other areas of research. A short lunchtime walk from the medical school campus can involve coffee at the School of Engineering or a sandwich at the business school.

This proximity matters for more than just lunch. Many important medical advances have come out of collaborations between faculty members from very different backgrounds. These collaborations have produced medical technologies, revealed the inner working of our brains, and generated strategies for solving international health crisis, and that’s just collaborations involving medical school faculty.

Institutes across Stanford support similarly interdisciplinary approaches to solving many of the grand challenges we face today in environmental research, security, economic policy and energy. Technology like virtual reality (above) is being applied to environmental research, questions of empathy, and athletics.

We’ve collected many of these stories and videos of boundary-crossing research on a new website that chronicles the results of venturing outside departmental silos. We’ve launched with stories about decision-making, water policy, intersections with the arts, and interdisciplinary undergraduate research, all of which span schools and departments to tackle real world problems.

Photo of virtual reality research by Linda Cicero

Addiction, Neuroscience, Stanford News

Brain connection influences gambling decisions

Brain connection influences gambling decisions

shutterstock_68220094Let’s say you had $10 and could place a bet with even odds to win or lose $3. Would you take it? What if you had a really good chance of winning a little and a low chance of losing a lot? Or a low chance of a big win with a higher chance of a small loss?

The choices you make in each those scenarios appear to come down to a tract of neurons in your brain. If that neuronal pathway has a lot of fatty insulation – an indication of a strong connection — you’ll make less risky decisions. A less insulated pathway makes it more likely that you will take a bigger risk.

That’s what psychology professor Brian Knutson, PhD, found when he used a relatively new technique to investigate the relationship between two brain regions known as the anterior insula and nucleus accumbens.

“Activity in one brain region appears to indicate ‘Uh oh, I might lose money,’ but in another seems to indicate ‘Oh yay, I could win something,’” Knutson told me.

The tract of neurons Knutson and his team discovered appears to provide a pathway for the more cautious region to dampen the enthusiasm of excitable region.

In my story about the work, I wrote about Knutson’s next steps:

Knutson said that finding the connection between the two regions won’t immediately lead to new interventions for people with gambling problems or other issues relating to risky choices, but it does provide a starting point for studying interventions.

“Now we can start asking interesting questions about impulse control and gambling,” Knutson said. “For example, does the connection change over the course of therapy?”

Previously: Genetics may influence financial risk-taking and Using neuroeconomics to understand how aging affects financial decisions
Photo by Shutterstock

Neuroscience, Research, Science, Stanford News

Building for collaboration spurs innovative science

Building for collaboration spurs innovative science

clarkWhen Stanford’s original main quad was built 125 years ago, it was with the intent of bringing faculty together in its outdoor spaces and walkways. From its inception, the university was a place where faculty were encouraged to collaborate across disciplines.

Nothing has done more to extend that original idea than the James H. Clark Center, which opened in 2003 at the intersection of the Schools of Medicine, Engineering and Humanities and Sciences. It was built as a home for Stanford Bio-X, which brings faculty together from across disciplines to solve problems in the life sciences.

As people around the world began seeing the kind of science that came out of the interdisciplinary mix in the Clark Center, that style building has begun springing up world-wide. In fact, in 2014, the National Academies specifically pointed to the Clark Center as one way of encouraging what they call “convergence” science.

Stanford has since constructed another building to encourage collaboration (the Jerry Yang and Akiko Yamazaki Environment and Energy Building) and just broke ground on a research facility to house the two newest interdisciplinary institutes: Stanford ChEM-H and the Stanford Neurosciences Institute.

In my story about this building trend, Ann Arvin, MD, Stanford’s dean of research and vice provost, comments, “This building is a physical manifestation of Stanford’s commitment to breaking down barriers between disciplines.”

Arvin went on to say that she thinks disciplines still need to be strong, but that the really innovative research is taking place at the intersections between those disciplines. The new research facility will be across the street from the Clark Center, perfectly poised to continue bringing disciplines together around problems in neuroscience and human health.

Previously: They said “Yes”: The attitude that defines Stanford Bio-X and Stanford’s Clark Center, home to Bio-X, turns 10
Image from Stanford Office of Development

Science, Science Policy, Stanford News

At Stanford, Rep. Jerry McNerney discusses life in Congress, science funding and the value of squash

At Stanford, Rep. Jerry McNerney discusses life in Congress, science funding and the value of squash

McNerny on campusFor many of us who work in or around science, it can be baffling to watch some of the decisions made by politicians. Some neuroscience faculty, staff and students got a look behind the scenes of what it’s like to be a scientist in government on Friday from congressman Jerry McNerney, PhD, who represents California’s 9th district. (His degree is in math). McNerney was at Stanford touring neuroscience labs at the VA and on campus, hosted by the Stanford Neurosciences Institute, and he took a pause at lunch for a town hall to answer questions about science, policy, and life in government.

McNerney talked about the challenges of explaining science to his colleagues and advocating for science-based policy on issues relating to energy and the environment as well as funding for biomedical research. He said one of his greatest tools is athletics. If he plays squash with someone he disagrees with, it’s easier to have calm conversations about policy. “If you communicate in an aggressive way you make it worse,” he said. “But you have to work at it.”

He encouraged scientists in the audience to talk with those they disagree with because their voices need to be heard. “To be a great country and a leader we need great research,” he said. Ensuring funding for that research is going to require scientists to be actively involved in explaining the value of their work.

McNerney was particularly interested in research related to traumatic brain injury, which is a critical problem for veterans returning from duty. He visited the lab of bioengineer David Camarillo, PhD, who is developing better ways of measuring head impacts and the damage they cause.

“We want to do the best we can to help these folks,” McNerney said.

Image of Rep. McNerney learning about concussion prevention by Tanya Raschke

Addiction, Behavioral Science, Neuroscience

Decisions, decisions: How evolution shaped our decision-making

Decisions, decisions: How evolution shaped our decision-making

Research in neuroscience, psychology, business and economics tells us that a plethora of influences can alter the decisions we make. The author explored some of these factors in a Worldview Stanford course and wrote about them in a Stanford story package, Decisions, Decisions. This post is the last in a series on what she learned. 

evolution

Our brains evolved to get the reward now and worry about consequences later. That, according to Stanford’s Keith Humphreys, PhD, is in part why addiction treatment programs so often fail.

“An alcoholic person will always choose the swift and certain rewards of a drink now over the possible threat of punishment at some future time,” he says.

In my story about how evolution shaped our decisions, I describe a program that allows people with drunken driving arrests to keep driving as long as they prove twice a day that they are sober:

Punishment is mild – a night in jail – but swift and certain if they are caught with alcohol in their bloodstream. And, according to a 2013 study, repeat offenses were down 12 percent where that policy was in effect.

Humphreys said he’d written about this program, to some skepticism. But when he explained evolutionary theory to an assembled group of law enforcement and lawyers he was surprised at how receptive they were.

“The rest of the conference everyone kept telling me that they had never thought about the neurological basis of why addicted offenders do what they do and why criminal justice systems which ignore this reality fail over and over again,” he said.

The story has more about a new initiative within the Stanford Neurosciences Institute in which Humphries and other faculty members are hoping to use neuroscience to influence addiction policies.

Previously: Decisions, decisions: How group dynamics alters decisionsKeith Humphreys: Drug-addiction treatment programs for military families are outdated and “24/7 Sobriety” program may offer a simple fix for drunken driving
Photo from Shutterstock

Behavioral Science, Neuroscience, Stanford News

Decisions, decisions: How group dynamics alters decisions

Decisions, decisions: How group dynamics alters decisions

Research in neuroscience, psychology, business and economics tells us that a plethora of influences can alter the decisions we make. The author explored some of these factors in a Worldview Stanford course and wrote about them in a Stanford story package, Decisions, Decisions. This post is part of a series on what she learned. 

Are you a leader? A follower? Are you charismatic? Knowledgeable? All of these factors will alter your role in a group, and eventually the decisions that the group makes.

Lindred Greer, PhD, with the Stanford Graduate School of Business, studies the way power structures effect group decisions. “If you put people with high power together, it’s a clash of egos like no other,” she said. “They are busier maintaining power than in making good decisions.”

In her work, she has found that hierarchical teams make faster decisions, but teams of equals produce the most creative solutions. Ultimately, the pressure is on the group leader to figure out what kind of decision is needed and to make sure the group functions effectively.

“The leader really does have the onus to be the most competent person in the room and we always forget that,” she said.

There’s more in my story about the qualities that make a good leader and the perils of choosing a bad one.

Previously: Decisions, decisions: How emotions alter our decisionsDecisions, decisions: The way we express a decision alters the outcome and Decisions, decisions: How our decision making changes with age
Video courtesy of Worldview Stanford

Behavioral Science, Mental Health, Neuroscience, Stanford News

Decisions, Decisions: How mental-health issues alter decision-making

Decisions, Decisions: How mental-health issues alter decision-making

Research in neuroscience, psychology, business and economics tells us that a plethora of influences can alter the decisions we make. The author explored some of these factors in a Worldview Stanford course and wrote about them in a Stanford story package, Decisions, Decisions. This post is part of a series on what she learned. 

Here’s something truly unfair. People with mental-health issues have changes in their brains that make it harder for them to make decisions that will benefit their health.

Just when you need good decision-making the most, it fails you.

Child psychiatrist Kathleen Fitzpatrick, MD, works with kids who have anorexia. She said that in those people, their risk/reward pathways are aligned so that not eating is rewarding and eating is cause for anxiety. And, like anyone, they decide in favor of the rewarding experience.

Fitzpatrick put it like this, “I will work for the reward of a cupcake. They will work for the reward of removing all cupcakes.”

In my story I also talk with psychiatrist Manpreet Singh, MD, who says people with depression face similar issues. That’s in part why mental-health conditions are so hard to treat. They change a person’s brain in ways that make it even harder to recover.

Previously: Decisions, Decisions: How emotions alter our decisionsDecisions, Decisions: The way we express a decision alters the outcome and Decisions, Decisions: How decisions change with age
Video courtesy of Worldview Stanford

Behavioral Science, Imaging, Neuroscience, Stanford News

Decisions, decisions: How emotions alter our decisions

Decisions, decisions: How emotions alter our decisions

Research in neuroscience, psychology, business and economics tells us that a plethora of influences can alter the decisions we make. The author explored some of these factors in a Worldview Stanford course and wrote about them in a Stanford story package, Decisions, Decisions. This post is part of a series on what she learned. 

emotionWhen it comes to charitable giving, the cold hard facts suggest hanging on to our money. But people routinely give their support to environmental or other causes.

Nik Sawe, a graduate student in environmental resources, wanted to know why. So he put people in an MRI and recorded their brain activity while showing them photos of iconic spaces and proposed destructive uses of those spaces.

In my story I describe their findings:

As expected, iconic images activated a part of the brain’s reward pathway involved in anticipating good outcomes, like getting money or food, and images of destructive land uses triggered a part of the brain that is often associated with response to bad outcomes, like experiencing pain or losing money.

The people with the biggest negative response to land destruction were the most likely to give money. Sawe said, “My hunch is that people get outraged over the proposed negative actions of a third party and that’s what drives donation. It’s punitive.”

This negative emotion driving environmental donation is the opposite of what people find with donations to charities or orphans, Sawe pointed out. There, people who anticipate the warm glow of giving are most likely to give. But, as I write in the piece:

In each case, he said, it’s our emotions that often override the pure cost-benefit analysis that goes into deciding which cause to support.

Previously: Decisions, decisions: The way we express a decision alters the outcome and Decisions, decisions: How our decision making changes with age
Photo by Shutterstock

Behavioral Science, Neuroscience, Research, Stanford News

Decisions, decisions: The way we express a decision alters the outcome

Decisions, decisions: The way we express a decision alters the outcome

Research in neuroscience, psychology, business and economics tells us that a plethora of influences can alter the decisions we make. The author explored some of these factors in a Worldview Stanford course and wrote about them in a Stanford story package, Decisions, Decisions. This post is part of a series on what she learned. 

expression

Given a choice of possible snacks, you’d think that you would make a decision and that would be that: Twix or banana. Done.

But Jonathan Levav, PhD, an associate professor of marketing in the Stanford Graduate School of Business, has found that the way we express our decision changes the very nature of what we decide. In my story about his work, I describe the findings of Levav and his collaborators:

Confronted with a well-stocked vending machine, your brain may say “Twix,” but your hand is more likely to push a button associated with the healthier fruit snack. Your hand reveals your good intentions, but if asked to state your preference, your mouth is more likely to name your impulse – the candy bar.

When the researchers had people speak their preferences into a vending machine, people consistently chose higher calorie snacks. This finding held true when people were asked to either speak or push a button to choose a dessert in a restaurant.

Levav also found interesting differences between choices that people make on a computer versus on an iPad. It turns out we are all more hedonistic when on an iPad.

If you want healthier snacks, make your selection manually. And if you want to spend less, customize your new car on a computer – not a tablet.

Previously: Decisions, decisions: How our decision making changes with age
Photo by Shutterstock

Aging, Behavioral Science, Neuroscience, Stanford News, Videos

Decisions, decisions: How our decision making changes with age

Decisions, decisions: How our decision making changes with age

Research in neuroscience, psychology, business and economics tells us that a plethora of influences can alter the decisions we make. The author explored some of these factors in a Worldview Stanford course and wrote about them in a Stanford story package, Decisions, Decisions. This post is part of a series on what she learned. 

Without revealing my age, I will simply say that I am beyond the teenage years, when risks fail to register and decisions are dominated by reward. But it turns out the person I was then shaped how my brain makes decisions today.

Kathleen Fitzpatrick, MD, a child psychiatrist, says that during our teenage years dramatic changes take place in the brain. Wiring we don’t use dies off and wiring we use heavily flourishes and multiplies, creating new connections and with it new behaviors.

In my story about how age alters decision-making I write:

During this time of brain circuit upheaval, adolescents weigh the pros and cons of decisions differently from adults. They overestimate the rewards of a decision (Fun! Friends!) but don’t accurately estimate possible risks (grounding, police).

Our teenage behaviors shape which of those new connections remain. If a behavior is rewarded, those pathways are strengthened. A failed behavior fades into a distant, embarrassing memory.

Read the story for more about both the teenage brain and also the way our decision-making shifts as we get older. Hint: we become less worried, which is something to look forward to.

Previously: Exploring the science of decision making and Exploring the intelligence-gathering and decision-making processes of infants
Video courtesy of Worldview Stanford

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