Research

We study human behavior and associated neural mechanisms across adulthood. Our lab research focuses on decision-related cognitive functions and how they change with age. Importantly, some of the changes to decision making in aging are the result of biological processes, others stem from psychological and social processes — but many can be attributed to an interaction of these factors. To understand these complex mechanisms, we utilize an array of methods including cognitive tasks, self-report measures, biomarker sampling, computational modeling, and functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI). We are currently conducting behavioral studies at UCF and fMRI studies at the University of Florida’s McKnight Brain Institute. Current grants that support our research program include:

  • Characterizing and modulating neurocognitive processes of learning to trust and distrust in aging (R01-AG072658, 03/01/22-04/30/27): The goal of this project is to characterize basic neurocognitive processes in learning to trust in aging and determine if trust-related decision making can be optimized via neurofeedback training.
  • Florida consortium to reduce misinformation and exploitation in Alzheimer’s Disease (22A10 , 04/01/22-03/31/26): This three-university consortium, led by our lab at UCF, examines cognitive and neural mechanisms of vulnerability to deception among older adults at risk for Alzheimer’s disease (e.g., those with Mild Cognitive Impairment). This project’s second major aim is to leverage our empirical data to develop a tool kit that can detect risk for exploitation in older adults.

These funded projects build upon our foundational work in aging decision neuroscience (see Conner, Horta, Ebner, & Lighthall, 2021; Lighthall, Conner, & Giovanello, 2019; Lighthall et al., 2012; 2014; 2018). The projects’ specific focus on social and affective decision making (e.g., trust and deception detection) is an extension of our lab’s more recent theoretical and empirical work (see Fernandez & Lighthall, 2019; Frazier, Lighthall, Horta, Perez, & Ebner, 2019Lighthall 2020; Pehlivanoglu, Lighthall, … & Ebner, 2022).

CURRENT RESEARCH TOPICS

Interactions of memory and decision making

Many of our decisions are influenced by memory. Often times the details of these memories are lost, but we none the less have a sense of what we should do (nondeclarative memory). Other times, decision making involves retrieving specific details from past events (declarative memory). Thus, decision making can involve different forms of memory — which are thought to be supported by different brain regions. The AD&D Lab is interested in how different learning and memory systems contribute to decision making and how age-related changes to specific memory regions affect decision quality. Current studies examine learning-dependent decision processing in risk taking, value learning, veracity detection, and trust-related decision making. We are also interested in determining how affective processes impact learning about choice options in the context of human aging.

 

Detecting decision impairments and optimizing decision behavior

Optimal decision making requires learning about choice-relevant options and integrating new information with related prior knowledge. Countless interventions have been proposed to facilitate learning about decision options, but it is often unclear if these interventions are actually effective and whether effectiveness depends on the decision maker’s age. Our lab seeks to determine risk factors for impaired decision making and pathways to improved decision making in domains such as personal finances, health, and social interactions. We also consider whether factors including changes to cognition and motivation, as well as race and ethnicity, influence risk for decision impairments and the effectiveness of interventions designed to enhance decision making.

 

Effects of challenge on decision making

Decision making may be difficult for any number of reasons. Perhaps you’ve just had a stressful experience… or you’re having trouble remembering the critical information you need to make your choice… or perhaps you have many choices in front of you, but no clear winner. What happens to our decision process when we cannot easily determine the best course of action? Studies in the AD&D Lab seek to understand how the brain responds to challenging decision scenarios. We are particularly interested in how decision quality can be maintained or improve in aging, despite declines in memory and executive function. We seek to determine the brain regions and strategies that can help people make good decisions in the face of challenge.