Neurobiological research examines information, visual processing across lifespans


Kansas State’s Cognitive and Neurobiological Approaches to Plasticity Center, or CNAP, leads expansion in psychological sciences and innovative research.

“It’s important to understand why the brain changes because it can help with disease treatment or countermeasures,” said Kimberly Kirkpatrick, CNAP director and professor of psychological sciences.

CNAP received a large block of funding with a $10.6 million grant from the National Institutes of Health in 2017.

“It’s been really good for collaboration,” Heather Bailey, assistant professor of psychological sciences, said. “It gives us a bunch of pilot data. It’s a way to give us additional help and to be able to go out and get the funding that senior faculty members are able to secure.”

Bailey’s research focuses on how prior knowledge can help someone learn new information. This specifically applies to older adults.

“In a laboratory test, if you give older adults a knowledge test like vocabulary knowledge or general work knowledge, they will greatly outperform students,” Bailey said.

At the neurophysiological level, Bailey’s project assesses how brain function changes in response to the activation of prior knowledge.

In other CNAP research, Mary Cain, professor of psychological sciences, looks at the effects of ethanol exposure during adolescence using rats.

This research broadens the CNAP focus through later adulthood and fosters interdisciplinary connections with the Department of Chemistry.

In other research, Charles Pickens, assistant professor of psychological sciences, combines natural and behavioral interference in interaction between brain areas key to decision-making during the learning process.

Hayley Fisher, graduate student in psychological sciences, works with Pickens to see if these parts of the brain will “make up” for areas of the brain impaired by alcohol consumption.

“It can be used as a model for other [addiction],” Fisher said.

The research also aims to determine the necessity of brain area interaction.

The grant also funds projects outside K-State to increase competitive research within the state of Kansas. Rui Ni, associate professor of psychology at Wichita State, leads the fourth CNAP project on how weakened visual function in older drivers contributes to traffic accidents.

“We use a theoretical approach to solve a real-world question,” Ni said. “In a series of studies, we use different procedures that aim to improve attention capacity, and we are seeing promising results.”

Ni’s project benefits from the driving simulator core at Wichita State.

“The driving simulator is a very useful tool,” Ni said. “It’s a more feasible way to get a great deal of what can occur in the real world.”

This knowledge will help improve driving performance for older drivers through answering questions in driving safety and aging.

Ni said the grant and the research it funds has the ability to bring great impact to the local community and across the world.

“Given the mission of NIH, I think it is very important to link the research to real-world use,” Ni said. “Especially the aging population; it is very important for their well-being to maintain their active living styles.”