Summer research – Dao ’18

Junior major Nigel Dao ’18 spent part of his summer doing research with Prof. Schmitzer-Torbert:

This summer I worked with Dr. Neil Schmitzer-Torbert to continue his line of research on the effect of stress on spatial navigation in human. Particularly, we were testing a stress-reduction cognitive training program that could potentially help negate the damaging effect of stress on the human brain. Nigel

It is well-established that experiencing stress in a prolonged period of time could have a wide range of harmful consequences on the human body. Stress, through the activation of hormone cortisol, damages a particular area of the brain that is involved in memory and navigation ability – the hippocampus. Scientists John O’keefe and Lynn Nadel, in 1978, proposed a groundbreaking theory the hippocampus learns and stores a cognitive map of space. The hippocampus is believed to regulate the use of am effortful yet flexible “spatial learning” strategy which people can use the relationship between landmarks (e.g., the tree is to the right of the house and to the left of the billboard) to navigate around the environment. There also exists a competing navigation system, the striatum that regulates a more rigid, inflexible strategy, “response learning”, where people employ a fixed pattern for navigation (e.g., turn right once, go straight ahea then turn left twice). Results from projects at Dr. Schmitzer-Torbert’s lab and our collaborators at McGill University, Dr. Veronique Bohbot and her colleagues, have shown that people who are experiencing prolonged stress were less likely to use the spatial learning than the response strategy, as well as make more errors in navigation tasks. It is thus worth questioning whether or not, by reducing stress, we could restore the use of the hippocampus in human navigation and that is what Dr. Schmitzer-Torbert and I were looking at during my internship.

We collected our sample of participants via an online crowdsourcing platform (Amazon Mechanical Turk) and measured their levels of stress with psychometric surveys. We also looked at their ‘trait mindfulness’ reports, a measure that was found in our previous projects to correlate positively with the participants’ navigation strategies and accuracy. The term ‘mindfulness’ came from a behavioral stress-reducing program, established by Dr. John Kabat-Zinn, that refers to one’s ability to attend to one’s thoughts, feelings and sensations without heightened reactivity and judgments. The Mindfulness-based Stress Reduction (MBSR) program aims to provide participants with this particularly helpful skill, through a variety of practices including the body scan, sitting meditation and mindful yoga. The program has received experimentally and clinically supported for its effectiveness in reducing stress in cancer and chronic illness patients, even medical students, so this is the cognitive training program that Dr. Schmitzer-Torbert wanted to see if it could help restore the use of hippocampally-dependent navigation.

Before moving on to the stress-reduction training, participants were first tested their navigation strategy and ability, using a virtual navigation task, in which participants learned to find objects hidden in a maze. At the end of the navigation task, we asked the participants to indicate their navigation strategy in a written report. Participants then moved on to the 8-week MBSR program and continued to check in with their progress every week. While our study is just wrapping up this month, and we were unable to recruit as many participants for the MBSR course as we had hoped, we have found the preliminary data to be encouraging, and we look forward to continuing this study in the future.

My internship with Dr. Schmitzer-Torbert has given me an invaluable learning experience that is very helpful for my academic career. This is not my first time running a psychological experiment, but it is my first time with an experienced researcher like Dr. Schmitzer-Torbert. I learned how to plan for a scientific experiment that goes beyond coming up with an answer for a specific question like we usually do in classrooms and includes dealing with uncoordinated participants, budgeting the experiment effectively and making sense of the data. Dr. Schmitzer-Torbert also introduced me to the realm of video game programming, of which I was very afraid previously and still am. Learning to code is exactly like learning a new language, with their own grammar and semantics, and it is nowhere near an easy task to do in 8 weeks! Lastly, the internship really helped me get to know Dr. Schmitzer-Torbert a lot more, about how he became interested in the field of neuroscience and his experience as a scholar, from which I knew more about what I want to do later in life.

I would like to thank Dr. Schmitzer-Torbert and Wabash College Psychology Department for this experience that is immensely helpful for my academic career. It gave me not only the knowledge and skill but too the inspiration and motivation as an inspiring scientist. I would also like to thank the generous donors, without whom my internship as well as many others could not happen.