Student Research Presentation: International Conference for Psychological Science in Paris

Last spring, six Muhlenberg students who work with Gretchen Gotthard, associate professor of psychology and neuroscience, presented their research at a conference in France.

By: Kristine Yahna Todaro  Tuesday, October 29, 2019 01:29 PM

How are memories disrupted? Once disrupted, is memory loss permanent, or can “lost” memories be recovered? And can the emotional aspects of a traumatic memory be weakened? These are some of the questions Associate Professor of Psychology and Neuroscience Gretchen Gotthard and her teams of student researchers explore in her lab.

Victoria Castillo '19, Jessica-Ann Golbitz '19,  Alison Bashford '20, Desiree Bsales '20, Hannah Gura '20 and Rebecca Shear '21 conducted research on two behavioral neuroscience projects and presented their work last March at the International Conference for Psychological Science in Paris.

“Participation in international conferences provides opportunities for students to share their work with other experts in the field and truly experience the life of a researcher,” says Gotthard, adding that these experiences help students leave campus well prepared for their careers.

Shear, a neuroscience major, says it was an honor to work on this research with a group of outstanding, motivated and collaborative students. "Being recognized by the Conference for Psychological Science for the hard work we all put in was an amazing experience, which was enhanced further by learning about the work of other scientists internationally. Professor Gotthard has given us guidance and resources to be successful, and I am very proud to be a member of her lab.” 

In one of the projects presented at the conference, "Effects of Visuospatial Interference on Episodic Memory in Virtual Reality," student researchers in the human memory lab used virtual reality to place participants into a highly realistic experience (e.g., a gondola tour in Venice) and then had them play Tetris. Because it's nearly impossible to play Tetris and think about the virtual experience at the same time, the creation of the memory for the virtual experience becomes disrupted.

Participants playing the game remembered fewer details of the virtual world but not the overall experience. Playing Tetris is currently being used in clinical settings, like in emergency rooms following vehicle collisons, and is meant to lessen the chances of PTSD development. The team of researchers is helping to explain how these interventions are working, suggesting that if peripheral details are lost, memories are less vivid and therefore less likely to interfere later on. 

In the second project, "Age of Memory and Reconsolidation: Cycloheximide Disrupts Reconsolidation of Recent and Remote Appetitive Odor Discrimination Memory in Rats," student researchers in Gotthard's rat lab worked to determine the parameters for memory reconsolidation (i.e., when a long-term memory is recalled and reactivated.)

The reconsolidation process has important implications for the treatment of memory-based disorders, like post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). By utilizing drugs called protein synthesis inhibitors, the researchers attempted to disrupt the reconsolidation of memories in rats, such as their memory for the location of sweet cereal rewards. In this study, they determined that even very old memories are vulnerable to the effects of reconsolidation. While it's not possible to directly apply work with rats to humans, their results suggest, preliminarily, that humans with very old traumatic memories may be helped by reconsolidation techniques as easily as people with newer traumatic memories.  

“Being a part of Professor Gotthard’s Lab and presenting our research at an international conference was an invaluable experience,” says Bashford, a neuroscience major. “It opened my eyes to the larger world of scientific research as an undergraduate student planning on pursuing research as a career. It showed me that as a team and as individuals, we could accomplish things we never thought possible.” 

Gotthard, who has worked with nearly 60 undergraduate researchers in her 10 years at Muhlenberg, says it's clear that conducting research as an undergraduate is an experience that has profound effects on students' personal and professional lives.

“Aside from the critical thinking and problem-solving skills that research nurtures, undergraduate research opens doors for students moving forward," she says. "Admittance to graduate and medical schools and opportunities for excellent research positions, for example, are often highly influenced by students' undergraduate research experiences."