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NSERC Discovery Awards Seed Innovation, Support Six Psychology & Neuroscience Visionaries

Posted by Nicole Marie LeBlanc on October 6, 2017 in News
Ralph Redden, Dr. Aaron Newman, Dr. Tamara Franklin, and Dr. Tracy Taylor-Helmick
Ralph Redden, Dr. Aaron Newman, Dr. Tamara Franklin, and Dr. Tracy Taylor-Helmick


2017 NSERC Discovery Grants, Scholarships, & Fellowships Announced

Fifty-seven Dalhousie researchers from six different faculties have received more than $8 million in federal grants to support ongoing research programs with long-term goals.

This year's Dal recipients of the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council (NSERC) Discovery Grants were revealed Friday as part of a larger national announcement by the Honourable Kirsty Duncan, Canada's Minister of Science, at the University of Victoria in British Columbia.

Awarded annually, the grants give researchers the flexibility to explore the most promising avenues of research as they emerge. A total of $515 million is being awarded to researchers across Canada as part of the program this year.

Six Psychology and Neuroscience researchers join 53 Dalhousie recipients in NSERC’s support for long-term research projects. We profile four of these innovators - Dr. Tamara Franklin, Dr. Aaron Newman, Dr. Tracy Taylor-Helmick, and PhD student, Ralph Redden – who are making waves in spheres of human behavior, language, cognition, and memory, and soon-to-be discoveries that are sure to impact our understanding of how the mind and brain work.

These are their stories:


Ralph Redden
Canada Graduate Scholarships-Doctoral Program

Attention to Conscious Awareness
PhD student, Ralph Redden, focuses on cognition; in particular, how we select sensory information from our environment, and how that information gets relayed to consciousness.

What are the costs and benefits that may arise from shifting one's attention from one location to another? Does where we attend (or where we have recently attended) influence the rate at which information in our environment reaches our awareness?

“A recent study we just completed looked at whether umpires judging close plays at first base might have their safe/out calls influenced by whether they were specifically attending the runner arriving at the base, or the ball arriving in the fielder's glove. The premise for this study was that if attention at a specific location speeds up conscious awareness then, for example, preferentially attending the ball might make you judge ‘out’ more often when the play is really close because your mind perceives the ball as arriving earlier than the runner.”

Redden and his team are currently extending these types of questions to other real-world scenarios, for example whether "offside" calls in hockey (i.e., attending the puck or attending an attacker's teammate) can be influenced by such a mechanism.


Dr. Aaron Newman 
Discovery Grants Program

Individual Differences Considered in EEG & MEG Neuroimaging 
As neuroimaging research evolves, we are beginning to move from the study of average patterns of brain activity to understanding the sources of inter-individual variance.

Newman and his trainees have already identified relationships between individual differences in neural signatures of lexical and grammatical processing (the N400 and P600, measured using EEG and MEG) and linguistic, cognitive, and demographic variables. His findings indicate that scalp-recorded brain activity is much more sensitive to fine-grained individual differences than previously thought—including factors such as socioeconomic status and reading habits.

We’re entering a new era of neuroimaging research that holds great promise both in terms of studying language under more naturalistic conditions, such as studying individuals engaged in free conversation. With support from the NSERC Discovery Grant, Newman’s goals are to model and understand the factors that drive individual differences around the average pattern of activity. This holds the promise of a much richer understanding of how language is proceed in the brain, and ultimately insights that will guide individualized training (e.g., second language learning) and therapy (e.g., speech-language therapy) through industrially-partnered research and development efforts.


Dr. Tamara Franklin
Discovery Grants Program

Dominant vs. Submissive Social Behaviours

Our days are often filled with frequent complex social interactions.  During these encounters, individuals regularly adopt a relatively dominant or submissive role.

Franklin’s laboratory is interested in the brain function needed to generate dominant versus submissive social behaviours. She theorizes that activity in a brain area called the prefrontal cortex likely plays a critical role in deciding whether an individual assumes a dominant or submissive role.

“One possible way that activity in the prefrontal cortex can be modulated is by differential levels of epigenetic regulators, proteins that affect the way that DNA associates with histones. The DNA-histone structure affects the ability for proteins that promote or inhibit gene expression, to access the DNA. This has downstream consequences for brain function.”

This research will be one of the first to investigate how epigenetic regulators directly impact brain activity while performing complex behaviours.

Franklin’s results will contribute to our understanding of basic brain functions that generate dominant versus submissive strategies within social groups. Findings will have important implications for a range of social behaviour disorders, from depression and social anxiety disorder (related to pathological submission) to antisocial disorder (related to pathological dominance).


Dr. Tracy Taylor-Helmick
Discovery Grants Program

Matters of Long-Term Memory
Intentional forgetting is forgetting that people do on purpose to select some items for commitment to long-term memory and to discard others.

Taylor-Helmick’s research was the first to demonstrate that intentionally forgetting unwanted information is initially more effortful than intentionally remembering. Her argument is that this effort is related to an active withdrawal of attention from to-be-forgotten items that also impairs processing of other nearby items.

She’s identified individual differences that make some people worse at intentionally forgetting than others, while showing intentional forgetting to be surprisingly robust across a variety of emotional and neutral stimuli. When intentional forgetting fails and a long-term memory is formed for unwanted information, the resulting memory trace is different than for items that were meant to be remembered.

Taylor Helmick’s research will generate new knowledge about how memory, attention, motor, and emotion systems interact in normal human cognition to achieve and reflect control over the contents of long-term memory. Using the memory system as a model cognitive system, she will offer unique insights into how selection for long-term memory is achieved, the level(s) of representation upon which this selection operates, and the consequences of this selection for emotional evaluations.