A Cognitive Shift

Allison Fitch: Fitch presents her work at the Annual Meeting of the Cognitive Science Society in Pasadena, Calif., in July 2015. Photo courtesy Allison Fitch

Allison Fitch: Fitch presents her work at the Annual Meeting of the Cognitive Science Society in Pasadena, Calif., in July 2015. Photo courtesy Allison Fitch

At UConn, brain science isn’t just for professors – it’s also for undergraduates like Allison Fitch ’13 (CLAS), whose original research showed key components of how children can grow out of a diagnosis of autism. It’s all part of mounting momentum in cognitive science, where people are asking: How does our brain actually work?

As a sophomore studying psychology and human development at UConn’s College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, Allison Fitch ’13 (CLAS) realized that if she wanted to go to graduate school in psychology, she’d have to spend at least two years doing undergraduate research.

She also thought she wasn’t going to like it.

“Research experience was something graduate programs required, but not something I wanted to do, so I began begrudgingly,” Fitch admits. “I was a reluctant researcher.”

Yet she was intrigued by the work of Inge-Marie Eigsti, associate professor in the psychological sciences department, whose work focused on how some teenagers diagnosed with autism in early childhood had reached “optimal outcomes” by effectively growing out of their symptoms. The work built on the groundbreaking research of UConn Board of Trustees Distinguished Professor Deborah Fein as part of the National Institutes of Mental Health-funded Optimal Outcomes project.

But Fitch was drawn to the study for more personal reasons. She’d grown up with a younger brother who didn’t start speaking until he was almost four years old, and was curious to learn more about the relationship between communication and cognitive function: a concept that would eventually shape her career.

The big picture and the small picture

Fitch began transcribing videotapes and logging behavioral data as part of Eigsti’s cognitive science research team. Her job: Record the number of words young study subjects used to verbally describe oil paintings while under “cognitive load,” a scientific term for multitasking, which in this case meant children tapping a computer keyboard with their index finger as they spoke.

Fitch began to notice a pattern that didn’t involve word counts. The children seemed to fall into categories; those who focused almost solely on small details in the paintings, and those who viewed them as overall images or scenes. It made her wonder how having a brain disorder like autism might affect a person’s understanding of details, so she asked Eigsti if she could use the data to design a study of her own.

Inge-Marie Eigsti with the new FMRI at the Philips Communications Sciences Building on Sept. 28, 2015. (Peter Morenus/UConn Photo)

Inge-Marie Eigsti with the new FMRI at the Philips Communications Sciences Building on Sept. 28, 2015. (Peter Morenus/UConn Photo)

Eigsti agreed, and Fitch went on to show with her work that children who overcame their autism diagnosis were similar to typically developing children in the recognition of the big picture when looking at the art, while children with autism were more interested in the smaller details. This corroboration of Fein’s theory suggested that overcoming an autism diagnosis involves changes at the level of cognitive processing.

Fitch not only acquired an unexpected passion for research, but received an invitation to talk about her findings in Spain at the International Meeting for Autism Research, and published a peer-reviewed article as first author: both rare accomplishments for an undergraduate, Eigsti says.

“This fantastic undergraduate took it upon herself to ask if she could independently pursue work that adds to the data showing how kids with autism tend to focus on the details of things and really struggle to understand, and express, the bigger picture,” Eigsti explains. She says this work is crucial to educational settings.

“Let’s use a teacher as an example,” she says. “A teacher assigning a book report will know a child with autism is going to need extra help understanding the assignment in its entirety, and maybe not so much help with each step. There’s so much clinical relevance to what Ally’s done.”

A new research tool

As part of the second phase of the Optimal Outcomes study, Eigsti and her team of students are working to better understand the mechanical changes related to brain cognition that occur in children who, as they grow up, lose autism symptoms. They’ll also be researching gestures and other forms of nonverbal communication in children with autism spectrum disorders, as well as how difficulties making generalizations affects children’s behavior and learning.

Working with Professor of Psychological Sciences Edward Large, Eigsti will also examine how autism and savant skills impact music cognition – an area which, says Eigsti, very little is known.

These projects will utilize the advanced brain Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging machine (fMRI) UConn purchased earlier this year, which shows what portions of the brain are involved in cognitive tasks, in real time. The scanner is the centerpiece of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences’ newly established Brain Imaging Research Center (BIRC).

Funded by nearly $10 million in grants and in development for more than three years, the BIRC is a result of UConn’s Academic Vision plan, which outlines the University’s pursuit of excellence in undergraduate education, graduate study, teaching, engagement and research.

Establishing UConn and CLAS as a center for language and cognition was also part of that plan–something Fitch believes she had the benefit of experiencing even before it was fully in place.

Fitch is sure she would not have gotten the instruction or experience she received at UConn from any other college. She transferred to UConn in her sophomore year because she believed UConn offered undergraduates the kinds of opportunities not available anywhere else.

Fitch is now in her third year working toward a doctorate in Developmental and Brain Sciences at the University of Massachusetts, Boston, and she credits her success to those first days at UConn when she swallowed her distaste and started doing research.

“Getting the OK to perform my own research, being asked to speak at an international conference…it was all very frightening at first,” Fitch remembers. “But then I realized, ‘These people see something in me.’ Brain cognition is such a fascinating and important field, and being a UConn student led me there.”


By: Cindy Wolfe Boynton

This story is part of a CLAS In Focus series on The Brain. Learn more.

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