Science of Learning Institute supports six projects that aim to further our understanding of how humans learn

The Science of Learning Institute at Johns Hopkins University will support six new interdisciplinary projects with two-year seed grants.

This is the fifth round of seed grants for the institute, which launched in 2013 to foster better understanding of all levels of learning.

"Our latest round of grants continues to showcase the highly innovative and intensely cross-disciplinary collaborations that have become the hallmark of our Science of Learning grant program," said Barbara Landau, the institute's director. "These collaborations come from partnerships between psychology and philosophy, public health and brain sciences, engineering and medicine, among others. As a whole, the grants beautifully illustrate the importance of funding superb basic science as the foundation for translation."

The new projects are:

Do novice and experienced teen drivers show neurophysiological differences to driving hazards?

Hazard detection is a life-saving skill that develops over this first year of driving. It helps to reduce crash rates by detecting road hazards such as pedestrians, other cars, debris, and animals. The research team—led by principal investigators Johnathon Ehsani, assistant professor in the Bloomberg School of Public Health, and Leon S. Robertson, faculty development chair in injury prevention—will use behavioral, psychophysiological, and neuroimaging techniques to study the neurophysiological markers of hazard detection in experienced drivers and compare those markers to inexperienced teenage drivers. They'll measure markers including changes in skin conductance, brain activity, and heart rate. Results from this line of research may identify biomarkers of driver crash risk, which could subsequently inform training needs and on-road practice needs to increase teens' abilities to detect hazards before they begin driving independently.

Other investigators include John Desmond, professor of neurology in the School of Medicine, and Karen Seymour, assistant professor in the School of Medicine's Division of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry. Read the full project proposal

How "rational" is the learning process?

New information can change the way we think about the world—or our prior beliefs can change the way we interpret new information. Principal investigator Chaz Firestone, an assistant professor in the Krieger School's Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences, will explore how humans learn and integrate new information with their prior knowledge, combining behavioral experiments with philosophical analysis to determine how rational humans are in their learning models.

Firestone will be joined in this line of inquiry by Steven Gross, an associate professor in the Department of Philosophy. Read the full project proposal

Can technology enable effective and efficient learning of surgical technical skills?

Gregory Hager, a professor of computer science in the Whiting School, will lead a research study that examines the practicality of providing novice surgeons with expert-level coaching through virtual reality. The work brings together scientific principles relating to peer learning in adults, machine learning, and surgical skill assessment to make virtual reality-based surgical training more effective and efficient than conventional training, thereby reducing the time it takes to get surgical trainees operating room-ready.

Other investigators include Anand Malpani, an assistant research scientist at the Malone Center for Engineering in Healthcare; Gina Adrales, chief of the Division of Minimally Invasive Surgery; Swaroop Vedula, assistant research professor at the Malone Center; Bethany Sacks, assistant professor of surgery in the School of Medicine; and Christina Harnett and Linda Tsantis, who are both associate professors in the School of Education. Read the full project proposal

How is learning motivated?

A team of researchers from the School of Medicine will combine neuroscience and behavioral science to explore the natural activity of the brain chemical serotonin and its known effect on behavior. Marshall Hussain Shuler, an assistant professor in the Department of Neuroscience in the School of Medicine, and Gerald Nestadt, a professor of anxiety and obsessive-compulsive disorders research in the School of Medicine, suggest that a rigorous theoretical understanding of the natural function of serotonin could improve understanding of psychiatric conditions affected by serotonin dysfunction and lead to more effective therapies. Read the full project proposal

Does the brain learn to increase blood flow to regions where neural activity is anticipated?

When there is increased neural activity in the brain, the brain increases its blood flow in order to increase the delivery of oxygen and nutrients to the active brain tissue. Building on Pavlov's research on conditioned responses, principal investigator David Linden, a professor of neuroscience in the School of Medicine, will lead a study into whether the brain can be conditioned to anticipate metabolic demand in the brain and adjust blood flow accordingly. Joined by Mikhail V. Pletnikov, a professor of psychiatry in the School of Medicine, Linden will use high-resolution imaging of blood vessels in the brain of an alert mouse during careful and simple forms of learning. Read the full project proposal

How can we characterize individual differences in learning behaviors as a function of motivation?

The project—led by principal investigator Sridevi Sarma, an associate professor in the Department of Biomedical Engineering—addresses fundamental questions of cognitive neuroscience regarding the interactions among motivation, attention, learning, working memory, and cognitive control—areas which are often studied in isolation. Understanding the mechanisms underlying these relationships could help improve educational practices and public policies, and help develop automated tools for individualized classroom or computer-based learning. Sarma will be joined in her research by Susan Courtney, a professor in the Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences in the Krieger School. Read the full project proposal