ASU psychologists rise to the top of their field

By

David Tate

Three Arizona State University psychology professors have been named as “Rising Stars” by the largest international psychological association in the world. The trio of honors ranks first amongst the Pac-12 schools and is second worldwide to only Stony Brook University.

The Association for Psychological Science gives the Rising Star award to “outstanding psychological scientists in the earliest stages of their research career post-PhD whose innovative work has already advanced the field and signals great potential for their continued contributions.”

The 2016 ASU honorees are Gene Brewer, for his research on cognitive processes and working memory; Frank Infurna, for his studies on the effects life stressors have on resiliency and healthy aging; and Madeline Meier, for her findings on long-term marijuana use and IQ decline, along with advancing discoveries of the pathology of schizophrenia.

Memory improvements

Working memory is the brain’s ability to represent goals, Brewer said, which can range from everyday menial tasks like remembering to attach a document to an email or snap decisions with large repercussions — a police officer responding to the scene of an ongoing crime, for example.

“If working memory capacity is the goal maintenance ability that people have, it’s so critical within all of these domains, then we need to find ways that we can improve it, to retrain it, and there’s a lot of research in that area and it’s a very controversial topic,” Brewer said.

For example, Lumosity, a popular brain-training app that advertised users could expect results including increased athletic performance and protections from Alzheimer’s disease and chemotherapy side effects, was recently hit with a $2 million fine from the Federal Trade Commission for false advertising earlier this month.

“I’m not a major proponent of the brain training method. Our work can’t speak directly to that, but the evidence is almost becoming overwhelming in terms of the inadequacies of current methods for training. Now that, that absolutely doesn’t mean it’s not possible … we may be asking the wrong questions,” Brewer said.  “So definitely a future direction is trying to figure out how can we improve that functionality and how within that functionality we can get it to translate to real world domains.“

Healthy aging

Infurna’s work also involves cognitive function, but narrows in on how mentally resilient an adult can be when encountered with aging and adverse life events, like the death of a spouse or loss of employment. His findings have shown that the more stressors an individual encounters, the harder it becomes for that individual to function normally.

“That’s what we’re currently focusing on: what are some of the factors that promote resilience and individuals being able to stay healthy? Some of the things we’re finding is having a strong social network or being able to have people to go to for help in time of need or stress, but also individuals who are able to stay engaged in one social network as well,” Infurna said.

Infurna’s close relationship with his grandparents during his childhood helped provide the impetus behind his study of healthy aging. He says he was working as a research assistant when “something clicked.”

“I think healthy aging is a combination of things: are people able to interact effectively day to day in terms of doing what they want to do, so they have control over their life circumstances, are they generally happy, and also how they’re doing health wise,” Infurna said. “Individuals may have chronic illness, but if they’re able to manage that chronic illness, that’s still considered healthy aging … so individuals who are able to maintain higher levels of physical functioning don’t show cognitive declines over time and they are able to live longer.”

Adolescents and marijuana

And while her colleagues are researching ways to improve and protect cognitive function, Madeline Meier’s research has shown that consistent marijuana use from adolescence to adulthood can lead to a significant reduction in IQ points.

“People who begin [to use] marijuana as a teenager and then continue to use for many, many years — they show an about eight point IQ decline,” Meier said. “We tried to rule out various alternative information … that could be explained by adolescent users coming from lower socioeconomic backgrounds that could be explained by adolescent marijuana users who also use alcohol or other hard drugs, long term tobacco use — we ruled out all those explanations.”

Because marijuana decriminalization and legalization is more controversial than ever before, it’s not surprising that the research behind its use and long-term effects can be just as divisive. A recent study in the United Kingdom as well as a joint effort between UCLA and University of Minnesota scientists have claimed that marijuana does not cause a noticeable IQ decline in teens and twins, respectively.

However, the UK study only surveyed adolescents from the ages of 8 to 15, while the UCLA-UM study did not query subjects on current marijuana usage, but only focused on the time periods where subjects reported their highest amount of usage.

“We have received [pushback]. The media is constantly publishing reports that other studies have contradicted what we have found between marijuana and IQ,” Meier said.

Her second research area may have discovered a new way to discover schizophrenia using a process called renal imaging, but Meier is quick not to jump to any conclusions during the ongoing study.

“What we found was that people who have been diagnosed with schizophrenia have wider veins. While we might say, ‘OK, we can detect this person has a wider blood vessel or blood vein in their eye, this leaves them at risk for schizophrenia,’ but that might put them at risk for a host of other things, like higher blood pressure,” Meier said.

Both Meier and Infurna were part of a class of nine new department hires in 2014.

“We have these new faculty who are really, really good, and contributing at a level that our prestigious department deserves,” said Brewer. “And that’s exciting to be a part of."