Russell Poldrack

Photo Credit: Claire Trammel | Daily Texan Staff

Risky behaviors, such as drunk driving and unprotected sex, are caused by decreased self-control functions in the brain, despite prior beliefs that it was people’s desires that caused risk-taking, according to University researchers.

Sarah Helfinstein, postdoctoral integrative biology researcher, conducted brain activity studies using data collected at the University of California, Los Angeles. According to Helfinstein, most other risk-related studies focus on brain responses to different levels of risks, while her research focuses on brain activity before a risk is taken. 

“Even though the actual risk itself is the same, what the difference is, when you take the risk or when you don’t take the risk is activation in [self] control regions of the brain,” Helfinstein said.

Tom Schonberg, researcher in the Imaging Research Center at the University, said people don’t know whether a risk is beneficial or harmful until after they have already taken the risk. Schonberg said to study risk prediction further, focusing on brain activity right before a risk is taken is vital.

“The unique part of what [Helfinstein] did in this study is to look at what happens one step before deciding whether to stop or go on; before you know what is going to happen,” Schonberg said.

Russell Poldrack, director of the Imaging Research Center, said after years of brain function and control research, these analyses of the data are being used to help further understand the decision-making behind risky behavior.

“The goal of the project [is] to help us understand the brain systems that are involved in memory, executive function and control, risky behavior and how they all relate to each other,” Poldrack said.

The conclusions that researchers drew from these studies can be implemented in many different areas, according to Helfinstein. 

“It helps us understand better why people choose to take or not take health-relevant risks [like] smoking cigarettes, experimenting with drugs or having unprotected sex,” Helfinstein said.

Poldrack said the implications of this research could be much bigger in the future, and conclusions from these studies could affect the treatment of mental illness and the prediction of future criminal behavior.

“It is certainly relevant to some of the disorders in which people are known to take impulsive risks, like ADHD or, particularly, bipolar disorder,” Poldrack said.

This is just one step toward understanding how people can avoid dangerous risks, according to Helfinstein.

“If we can move on to better understand how to strengthen [self] control systems when confronted with these decisions, it might help people,” Helfinstein said.

Recent developments in neuroscience technology will help link computers and the human brain, according to a panel hosted by The Austin Forum on Science, Technology & Society on Tuesday.

“If you think about an infant with its eyes open for three seconds, that’s where we are at in neuroscience,” said Russell Poldrack, UT psychology and neuroscience professor and panelist.

One topic of research the panelists focused on as particularly promising was software that interacts with the brain. Panelist William Hurley, software developer and businessman, said neuroscience software is only now receiving the attention it deserves. Hurley works as the co-founder of the Austin software company Chaotic Moon, which drew attention to itself by developing a mind-controlled skateboard.

“A lot of the problems [in neuroscience] are in the software space,” Hurley said. “For example, if you take an EEG [electroencephalograph], and you read signals out of the brain, the hardware science for how to do that is pretty well-defined. But the results you get, which are defined by the software algorithms, are pretty sketchy at best.”

The other member of the panel was business consultant Kevin Leahy. The speakers discussed the past, present and future of neuroscience, which Poldrack described as a field still in its infancy. The panelists discussed promising neuroscience software that is viable with today’s technology, such as programs that could train people’s brains, improve their memories and decision-making or even help them relax.

“Brain software can’t tell you a lot about the brain [now], but it can help you meditate or achieve meditative states,” Poldrack said.

The panelists also discussed possible applications of neurological technology in the near and distant future. Hurley and Poldrack each said they are interested in the possibility of software that helps treat mental illness, such as programs that interact with someone having a panic attack or technology that could be used to treat the brain for conditions like epilepsy without surgery. Leahy, on the other hand, spoke about software that could help people deal with their personal biases.

Though the panelists were largely optimistic about these new technologies, they did recognize the possible dangers that they pose.

“The ethical implications of the advancement of this technology should be at the forefront of the everybody’s mind,” Hurley said. “It is possible that at some point we will find out how to program your brain. And when that happens, [can] I program brains without their knowing?”

Neurobiology professor Russell Poldrack has a MRI Tuesday morning in the basement of the Norman Hackerman Building. Poldrack receives two MRIs weekly and has completed 56 thus far.

Photo Credit: Shelby Tauber | Daily Texan Staff

Many people weigh themselves and track what they eat, but neurobiology professor Russell Poldrack studies himself in an in-depth way no one has done before in his quest to learn how a healthy brain functions daily.

His study consists of a weekly blood sample and two MRI scans per week paired with mood questionnaires, according to Poldrack. Poldrack said he also completes daily surveys measuring aspects such as sleep quality, diet and what happened that day. Poldrack said he began data collection in September 2012 and plans to publish his results in the fall.

Poldrack said he tracks the fluctuations of his psoriasis and has found that on days he recorded it being worse, the genes related to psoriasis are expressed more.

“Even though this is really preliminary, it starts to show us the kinds of stuff that we might be able to find,” Poldrack said. “The question is if we had enough data could we relate this back to brain function, too.”

There is no research on how brains change over a period of weeks and months, and because some disorders, including depression, fluctuate over this period, people with these disorders could get scanned regularly to measure which treatments work, Poldrack said.

Poldrack stopped getting MRI scans in March because the noise from the scans worsened his tinnitus. He said he plans to resume scanning this week, although he will decrease the number and duration of his scans, because Poldrack will stop measuring some things, such as brain structure, that probably won’t change.

One of Poldrack’s colleagues, Tom Schonberg, said that his research receives some criticism.

“[His colleagues] try to plant the seeds of doubt and criticism all the time because when it’s out there scientifically, when he reaches the stage of trying to publish this, he’ll get criticism from all directions,” Schonberg said.

Poldrack said although it will be challenging to find people willing to participate, he wants to do the study on a large set of people.

Not only is this data the first of its kind, but it also has some very unique uses. For example, Austin artist Laurie Frick, who creates work based off measurements and self-tracking data, said she will use the results of Poldrack’s study to create pattern-based art.

“I’m sort of having this idea that maybe you could really come up with a more holistic portrait and think about what that data adds up to,” Frick said.

Poldrack said he may not have the funds to analyze a year’s worth of blood samples, which show how gene levels relate to what is happening in the body, because it costs $700 to analyze a week’s worth of blood.

“If we could find the money … then we could go back and do it,” Poldrack said. “It would be a really unique data set. I don’t know of any other data sets of a person who collected blood at the same time every week for such a long period of time.”

With finals approaching, studies have shown that spending all night studying before an exam isn’t likely to improve grades, and that good sleep is key for the brain to retain information. Other experiments have noted that mood and surroundings are also significant factors in determining how well students perform on an exam (Photo illustration).

Photo Credit: Trent Lesikar | Daily Texan Staff

It’s the end of the semester and, though you promised yourself that this time would be different, you’ve let your work slide, and you’re not prepared for the final at all. Without a minute to waste, you’re going to need to spend every second you have studying, maybe even pulling an all-nighter or two.

Unfortunately, that may be one of the worst ways to prepare, according to UT professor Russell Poldrack, who studies memory, learning and how we acquire new skills.

“Getting a good night’s sleep is probably the most important thing,” he said. “It’s a really important way that memories get transformed in the brain.”

In other words, walk into a test feeling like a zombie, and you’ll likely perform like one. Aside from getting a good night’s rest, there are other techniques to keep in mind while studying.

For one, make studying an active process. Rereading the same textbook for the eighth time isn’t going to do a whole lot for you on test day. A 2006 experiment by Henry L. Roediger, III and Jeffrey D. Karpicke confirmed this, suggesting that rereading boosts confidence in the subject matter without significantly increasing mastery of the material. This is a recipe for disaster.

A better way to prepare for the final is to continually test yourself.

“The act of retrieving something from memory is actually one of the most powerful ways to get it to stick in memory,” Poldrack said.

Additionally, Poldrack suggests that your surroundings can make a huge difference as to how well you can recall information. A classic study performed by D.R. Godden and A.D. Baddeley of the University of Stirling placed subjects either on land or in SCUBA suits underwater and asked them to learn a list of words. When tested, the ones who learned the words on land performed better on land and those who learned them underwater performed better underwater. As such, it may be more effective to study in a library or classroom setting that’s similar to where you’ll be tested rather than curled up in bed.

Even something as simple as your mood could make a difference as to how well you remember things. A paper published in American Psychologist by Gordon H. Bower of Stanford collected several experiments testing this idea and the results very strongly suggest that if you’re in a crummy mood when you’re studying, you’re better off waiting until after the test to cheer up.

These are all things to keep in mind to minimize damage, but, ultimately, the most important thing to consider is how you found yourself in this mess to begin with. The nights you spent watching TV or going to parties may have seemed like good ideas at the time, but not in retrospect. And, ultimately, those nights may be what make the difference between the average students and those who excel.

A classic and on-going study by Walter Mischel (currently at Columbia University) involved leaving small children alone in a room with a treat such as a marshmallow. If a given child could avoid eating the marshmallow until a researcher returned to the room, the researcher would reward the child with a second marshmallow. Approximately one-third of the subjects lasted long enough to get the reward, while the rest gave in to temptation.

The amount of time a given child could hold off eating the treat had a long-lasting impact. For instance, those who could wait for the reward ended scoring higher on the SAT more than 10 years later than the other group.

Of course, none of that matters at the tail end of the semester when there’s no time to give in to temptation, but it’s something to keep in mind for the next one.

Poldrack explains, “One very fundamental thing that we know about people is that events in the future get discounted. The impact of something in the future is much smaller than the impact in the present. Even if the prospect of failing a class is a very bad thing, that’s not going to happen until the end of the semester.”

So let this semester be a lesson of what not to do. Don’t just read through the book several times and call it studying — instead, put your brain to work and test yourself constantly. Be mindful of your surroundings as well as your mood and make sure you get plenty of sleep, particularly around midterm and finals time. And while a night of partying may be fun and even deserved every once in a while, remember not to give in to the marshmallow.

At least not too often.