Neuroscience research collaborates with English department in new study

Emelia Sherin

Researchers on campus are recording the thoughts and actions of students on the autism spectrum to better understand how to improve teaching methods in composition and writing.

“A study I had published with a colleague on autism and writing… needed a follow-up based in a quantitative methodology,” said Sara Newman, an english professor and Ph.D. in science rhetoric. This is what sparked her interest in developing the project.

The study was approved on Jan. 24, 2017, and was developed by Newman, who is student assisted by Yael Courtney, a senior biology major.

Research involved human subjects for testing, so they needed an evaluation from the Institutional Review Board (IRB) to ensure safety, according to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration IRB document.

“We are looking at people on the autism spectrum, and using an EEG study to explore if and how they are able to utilize the theory of mind in a writing task,” Ya’el said. “We’re looking to what extent they can display their empathy, conceptualism and how their neural activity correlates.”

They record brain activity in the electrophysiological neuroscience lab under Josh Pollock, an assistant professor in the Department of Sociology and received his Ph.D. in Adult Development and Aging.

They use electrophysiological monitoring on an electroencephalograph, which is like a hair net with wires that are pasted to the scalp. It tracks bursts of energy and responses to stimuli that is then converted into a graph, according to Johns Hopkins Medicine.

“Participants respond to a prompt and write their response on a computer or paper… this data is recorded graphically; the neuroscientists develop a framework to analyze the data,” Newman said.

Receiving only 10 participants so far, Newman and a colleague of hers will analyze students responses rhetorically to observe the kind of language they use and test the assumption that people within this population, can only see the world from their point of view.

The project is still in process. If you or someone you know is interested in participating in this study, please reach out to Yael Courtney at [email protected] or Sarah Newman at [email protected].

Emelia Sherin is the science reporter. Contact her at [email protected].