My overall research goals are to further understanding of 1) the brain mechanisms guiding human social intelligence, 2) how these mechanisms work in populations with social cognitive disorders, and 3) what aspects of these mechanisms are plastic and can be enhanced. Completion of the studies proposed in this NRSA would help me directly work towards these long-term goals. The primary objectives of the proposal are to test whether social working memory, which to date has been unexplored behaviorally and neurally, is a basic mechanism underlying social cognitive ability.
Specific aim 1 is to examine the structural and functional neural correlates of social working memory and their association with social cognitive abilities. To address this aim, Study 1 uses A) functional MRI methods to measure blood oxygenated dependent (BOLD) signal in response to social working memory and cognitive working memory tasks B) structural MRI methods to measure how cortical thickness throughout the brain corresponds with functional activation during the working memory tasks and C) performance on a standardized measure of social cognitive ability to see how individual differences in social cognition correspond with functional and structural indices. Virtually no social cognitive neuroscientists are trained in structural analysis methods used in this proposal. Training in the cortical thickness analysis from co-sponsor Dr. Paul Thompson will be a huge benefit of receiving NRSA fellowship.
Specific aim 2 is to determine whether social working memory training improves social cognitive ability. Study 2 achieves this aim with a neurally-inspired SWM training intervention. Participants in Study 2 will complete pre-training measures of social working memory and standardized social cognitive ability, a 12 day social working memory or control training intervention, and post-training measures of social working memory and standardized social cognitive ability. Many psychiatric conditions including autism spectrum disorder (ASD), schizophrenia, and social anxiety show dual or differential deficits in social cognition and cognitive working memory (Amir &Bomyea, 2011;Baron-Cohen et al., 1985;Couture et al., 2006;Dawson &Fernland, 1987;Goldman-Rakic, 1994;Pickup &Frith, 2001;), however no extant research has linked these two psychological processes. The proposed studies will offer insight as to how working memory and social cognition may interact behaviorally and neurally, which can lead to future hypotheses about how these systems may be impaired in disorders such as ASD, schizophrenia and/or social anxiety. Moreover, the interventions developed here could be used in individuals with these disorders to improve social cognitive ability.
Successful everyday social interaction requires keeping track of various amounts of social cognitive information, such as the particular characteristics and relationships among people. Development of the proposed "neurally inspired" social working memory interventions could be used in a number of disorders associated with social cognitive deficits, including autism spectrum disorder and schizophrenia to better their everyday functioning. Evidence of social working memory training effectiveness in the healthy sample in Study 2 could also lead to the development social working memory training interventions for individuals with typical social cognitive ability to further improve their social cognitive competence. !