A multi-institutional research team led by assistant professor Jared Medina of the Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences
at the University of Delaware has received a four-year, $6 million
Research Infrastructure Improvement (RII) Track-2 grant from the
National Science Foundation's Experimental Program to Stimulate
Competitive Research (EPSCoR).
RII Track-2 grants aim to build national research strength by
initiating collaborations in two or more EPSCoR jurisdictions. The award
supports research of national significance while also requiring
recipients to invest in developing a science, technology, engineering
and mathematics (STEM) workforce — particularly early-career faculty
The project led by Medina involves nine faculty members from UD, the
University of Nebraska, Lincoln, and the University of Nevada, Reno, in a
joint effort to probe the complex relationship between existing
knowledge already stored in the brain and new information obtained
through sensory perception.
Other UD psychological and brain sciences faculty on the grant
include assistant professor Tim Vickery, a co-principal investigator,
and professors Jim Hoffman and Anna Papafragou, who will serve in
supporting roles during the project.
"How we perceive the world has often been thought to be a one-way
process — that is, our senses collect information and our brain
processes and stores the information," Medina said. "Newer evidence
suggests that stored experience and knowledge feed back and influence
the way we perceive the world. The questions we’ll be addressing include
how much and in what ways our prior knowledge affects how we perceive
Using a variety of research techniques and approaches, the team will
be investigating the interplay of experience and perception as the brain
acquires new knowledge, while simultaneously providing training and
research support in those techniques to faculty and students at the
Experiments in learning
According to Medina, a number of cognitive functions — systems in the
brain that control the senses, attention, memory and action — are all
involved in the perception and integration of new knowledge — or in
other words, learning.
To help tease out each function's contributions to learning, the
group will conduct experiments that address questions in three areas:
• Statistical learning —Akin to pattern recognition,
statistical learning is thought to be a vital mechanism for extracting
useful knowledge from regularities in the sensory environment, from word
boundaries in streams of speech to the structure of visual scenes, and
has been demonstrated in infants as young as eight months old. How does
the knowledge that we already have influence our subsequent statistical
• Action – The human body is a reservoir of prior knowledge
extending back before birth that is based upon our three-dimensional
presence in space and our ability to move and to influence other objects
around us. How does having a body and the ability to act affect our
perception of the outside world?
• Attention and working memory — Both our ability to select
and pay attention to incoming sensory stimuli and our ability to hold
that input in working memory play a role in learning. How do these
processes interact with prior experiences stored in long-term memory to
construct new knowledge?
“We are very fortunate to have people at the three partner
institutions with overlapping interests in understanding the
relationship between knowledge and perception, which will help us
address these questions,” Medina said.
Training in techniques
Grant funds will enable both physical and virtual networking. The
team will hold regularly scheduled workshops where the researchers and
their lab members can meet for training in research methods, but they
will also establish the technical infrastructure needed for frequent
data sharing and consultation among the institutions on an ongoing
Medina notes that each institution involved in the grant has made
significant investments in neuroscience research in recent years,
including new faculty hires and state-of-the-art equipment.
UD, for example, has developed the capability to picture the brain in action with functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) at the brand new Center for Biomedical and Brain Imaging.
However, each department is still relatively small and, especially in
the case of Nevada and Nebraska, physically isolated from other large,
advanced centers of neuroscience research.
“What this grant allows us to do is to reach that critical mass of
expertise that some of the larger, better-funded states have by
providing the resources to bring our three teams together,” Medina said.
Medina emphasized the importance of being able to examine an aspect of cognitive function using more than one technique.
“A multimodal approach allows us to more fully understand mind-brain
relationships,” Medina said, adding that it is also important for
recruitment and retention purposes to “make sure that we have all the
resources that any prospective graduate student or faculty member would
be looking for.”
Thus the three research modules will be interwoven with three
“methods cores” — groups of faculty across the institutions who will
share their expertise in specific research techniques in neuroimaging,
neuropsychology and neurostimulation with the rest of the participants.
Co-principal investigator Vickery says that neuroimaging is a vital
tool on its own but is even more powerful when combined with other
“Imaging allows us to locate neural correlates of psychological
processes and enables us to examine how different parts of the brain
communicate differently when engaged in different tasks,” he said. “We
now have access to a cutting-edge tool for neuroimaging, but it will
require a great deal of training to harness its capabilities.”
The grant will expand UD’s neuroscience toolbox even further through
transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS), a noninvasive tool that enables
researchers to precisely stimulate neurons in the brain’s cortex from
outside the skull.
“An imaging study may reveal that a certain part of the brain is
involved in working memory, for example. But you don’t know whether that
brain region is necessary for the task or just correlated with the
task,” Medina said. “You can then use transcranial magnetic stimulation
to temporarily disrupt that area of the brain and see if it affects the
working memory task. Or you can examine whether individuals with brain
damage to this area have problems with working memory.”
The grant will also fund research with brain-damaged individuals,
examining how injury to certain brain regions influences specific
cognitive functions. Medina has conducted similar research in the past
with people who have suffered strokes.
As part of the workforce development aspect of the grant, the team
will host an annual summer workshop at UD for undergraduates. This
“brain camp” will provide a two-week intensive introduction to cognitive
neuroscience research in which students will design and run their own
Medina hopes to recruit students that have been historically
underrepresented in neuroscience for the program. He says the ultimate
goal of “brain camp” is to demonstrate to a diverse group of students
that advanced neuroscience research is within their reach.
“We want the undergrads who participate in the program to be able to
take that experience back to their classes and their labs with the
confidence to know that they can compete when they go to graduate school
or to med school or wherever life takes them,” Medina said, adding that
he hopes that many will want to apply for graduate studies at UD and
its partners in Nevada and Nebraska.
EPSCoR is a program designed to fulfill the National Science
Foundation's mandate to promote scientific progress nationwide.
Twenty-five states, the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin
Islands, and Guam are currently eligible to compete for EPSCoR funding.
Through this program, NSF establishes regional partnerships with
government, higher education, and industry that effect lasting
improvements in a state's or territory's research infrastructure and
research and development capacity, and hence, its academic
competitiveness. Delaware EPSCoR is a
collaborative partnership among the University of Delaware, Delaware
State University, Delaware Technical Community College and Wesley