Neuroscientists open doors to collaboration

Wen Huang
News Officer for Law, Policy and EconomicsUniversity Communications

In the Biopsychological Research Building basement, Prof. Ed Vogel swings open a metal door, revealing a metal-lined, closet-sized compartment. Vogel and fellow neuroscientist Ed Awh, collaborators since 2001 who share a lab, will use these electromagnetically shielded booths that block external noise and electronic interference to measure neural activity—signals as small as a millionth of a volt.

Awh and Vogel, two leading scholars whose joint research focuses on visual cognition and working memory, joined the University of Chicago's growing neuroscience and cellular science faculty in fall 2015.

Awh and Vogel study how people visually take in and hold onto information to make decisions and act. They also examine people’s ability to focus their attention and tendency to lapse into distraction. “A central question we examine regards how individuals differ in the ability to control attention, and how this affects their memory for an event,” said Vogel.

The two scholars first met in the mid-1990s at a cognitive neuroscience conference. Awh was a postdoctoral fellow at the University of California at San Diego, and Vogel was a doctoral student at the University of Iowa. “Since we had a lot of shared interest in working memories and visual attention, and were both working on similar theoretical areas, we stayed in touch over the years,” Awh recalled.

In 1999, Awh became an assistant professor of psychology at the University of Oregon. When Vogel came two years later, they began working on joint projects, one of which was a paper they published on visual working memory. According to Awh, working memory is the system responsible for the transient holding and processing of new and already-stored information. It plays an important role in reasoning, comprehension, learning and memory updating.

The paper became the seed idea for a National Institutes of Health grant, which served as a primary source of funding for both of their labs and the nexus for theoretical work, laying the foundation for their future research partnership.

As their collaboration deepened, Awh and Vogel remodeled their labs at the University of Oregon and went out of their way to create open spaces that encouraged cooperation between their students and themselves. “Our labs are next door to each other, and we usually have both opened, so we or our students can easily and casually talk with each other about anything that’s interesting. This has a big influence on the degree to which we share our ideas,” said Vogel.

“I’ve become convinced over the years that collaboration needs you to take advantage of serendipitous conversations and ideas that just pop up over the course of the day,” Awh added. “It’s really hard to get that kind of cohesion if we have to make appointments to talk with each other.”

The design of their new lab at UChicago is strongly shaped by the positive experiences they have. “I think it’s really effective,” said Awh. “We always use each other as a sounding board. Our teams, our students and postdocs are working together and are integrated in a productive way.”

Awh’s recent research has found evidence of a significant intersection between the systems behind perceptual selection and the systems that actively maintain information in working memory. Vogel, specifically, has focused on how visual working memory functions in relation to selective attention processes.

Behavioral performance research is the bedrock of neuropsychology. It provides the foundation for Vogel and Awh’s neural activity research, primarily conducted by electroencephalogram, or EEG, inside radio frequency-shielded booths. Subjects don a cap with embedded electrodes that poke through their hair and touch their scalps. While they perform a memory or perceptual task, the electrodes pick up electrical activity emanating from the brain.

“We amplify those tiny signals so we can record them,” said Vogel, “and then try to understand that activity.” Starting with functional MRI—which Awh and Vogel also use to measure neural activity—and then with EEG, science has made rapid advances in the ability to decode neural patterns.

Both researchers look forward to building bridges between various disciplines in their work at UChicago. Awh expressed plans to link research on human subjects and in animal laboratories to obtain more detailed models of how cognitive processes work in the brain. Vogel characterizes his work as an intersection of traditional psychology and neurobiology, and sees great potential to enhance the connection between the two departments in the future.

“UChicago has a phenomenal academic tradition,” said Vogel. “In particular what I think is really exciting about it are the vast resources and the investment in top-notch research and education.”

“We’re excited to come to a place where we can really push forward a broad program of neuroscience,” Awh added.

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