Research Spotlight: Dr. Philip A. Allen and Dr. Kevin P. Kaut Emotion and Cognition Lab

There is a brain system that rapidly processes incoming sensory information for potential threat.  This system consists of the sensory pathways (e.g., visual), the amygdala, ventromedial prefrontal cortex (VMPFC), dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (DLPFC), and anterior cingulate cortex (ACC).  In the Allen and Kaut lab, they are testing this neural circuit using traditional behavioral techniques, neuropsychological assessment techniques, and psychophysiological (event-related potential, or ERP EEG) techniques in the context of human aging and individual differences in a number of personality (e.g., neuroticism and extraversion) and psychopathology dimensions (depression, magical ideation, impulsivity, attention deficits).  These investigators have evidence that many older adults have brain changes in the amygdala and prefrontal cortex (VMPFC, DLPFC, and ACC) that result in less efficient threat perception (Baena, Allen, Kaut, & Hall, 2010), emotional decision making (Baena et al., 2010), and episodic memory (Allen, Kaut, & Baena, in press; Allen, Kaut, Lord, Hall, & Grabbe, 2005).  Also, work out of this lab has provided evidence that this very early exogenous attentional system becomes active before selective (central) attention, and actually is used to direct later endogenous selective attention (Shaw, Lien, Ruthruff, & Allen, in press).  This research suggests that emotional and cognitive processing are not independent systems, and that gaining a better understanding of how these two types of processing are integrated will provide us with a clearer understanding of human information processing with a number of potential practical application.  For example, this approach can be used to explain why episodic memory becomes weaker as we age, why some older adults are more susceptible to financial schemes, the relationship between late-life depression and executive dysfunction, and why physical and cognitive exercise improve cognitive function as we age.