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Intrepid Idaho State University doctoral student Ariana Tart-Zelvin aims to change a state of mind

March 8, 2016
Kayla Nelson

POCATELLO—Idaho State University psychology doctoral student Ariana Tart-Zelvin has completed a dissertation study to better understand what brain areas are active when healthy adults use a cognitive strategy on a working memory task.

“Working memory is a personal research interest of mine and numerous clinical populations suffer from working memory impairments,” Tart-Zelvin said. “You see impairment in working memory across different diagnosis. For example epilepsy patients, Parkinson’s patients, MS (multiple sclerosis), OCD (obsessive-compulsive disorder) and ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder) patients all have trouble with their working memory.”

Working memory refers to the ability to process and store information, which requires a noticeable amount of focus and attention.

The goal of her project was to better understand how working memory strategy training improves working memory performance on a neural level to provide information that could aid in working memory performance among different clinical populations.

 “This cognitive strategy has not been studied before in a healthy population from a neuroimaging perspective,” Tart-Zelvin said. The study could improve doctors and clinicians’ ability to detect cognitive decline, recommend strategy training, and tailor early cognitive interventions such cognitive retraining or cognitive rehabilitation among clinical populations.

“In order to target specific mechanisms of working memory for treatment purposes, one needs to understand how and why certain strategies work in the brain and improve performance,” Tart-Zelvin said. “We decided to take a strategy that’s been highly supported by existing cognitive studies to improve people’s working memory performance; then extend that literature using neuroimaging to better understand how that strategy works in the brain. We’ve begun to answer the ‘how,’ but not the ‘why,’ yet.”

Idaho State University did not have the imaging equipment needed to conduct the study so Tart-Zelvin traveled to the Utah Center for Advanced Imaging Research to complete MRI scans and to obtain the neuroimaging data. She then analyzed the data at Drexel University in Philadelphia where she could make use of the software needed to analyze the images.

“When I came to ISU I knew that I wanted to conduct a neuroimaging study, I had been doing that work before I got here and it fascinated me” Tart-Zelvin said. “This study represents a huge team effort. When I talk about the study, I always say “we” as this study would not have been possible without the support of several individuals and generous financial support from Idaho State University College of Arts and Letters and the Office of Research.”

She worked closely with ISU College of Arts and Letters Dean Kandi Turley-Ames, who serves as one of her mentors; ISU psychology Assistant Professor Mona Xu, another mentor; J. Michael Williams and Karol Osipowicz, professors from Drexel University; and the Utah Center for Advanced Imaging Research. Tart-Zelvin also had assistance from dedicated graduate and undergraduate students who helped with data collection in Salt Lake City. These students were Reinalyn Echon, Alyssa Korell, Danielle Correll and Ashley Miller.

Tart-Zelvin gave a presentation on the study at the ISU Department of Psychology’s 19th Annual Research Forum on Feb. 26, where attendees can learn about the department’s Ph.D. program.  She discussed the main findings of the neuroimaging results and the initial behavioral analyses. Tart-Zelvin included pictures of the brain and a video that combined all of the fMRI scans.

“It’s very exciting because we have been talking about this study for almost three years now and this is the first year where we have actual results to present,” Tart-Zelvin said.

 “It was important to me to further examine an aspect of executive function that could potentially improve the lives of countless people,” Tart-Zelvin said. “Any sort of advancement in the area of working memory could potentially help a lot of people. I wanted to make the biggest impact I could with one study.”

She will send the results to journals and conferences both nationally and internationally in the hope of disseminating the results among the field. Among other conferences, Tart-Zelvin will submit an abstract with the results to the next International Neuropsychological Society Conference, which is currently the largest neuropsychological conference that exists.

“My goal is to defend my dissertation this summer and submit the results to different journals over the next few months,” Tart-Zelvin said. “My long-term goal is to become a clinical neuropsychologist and ideally be able to work with adults from different clinical populations who have impairments in their working memory. That said, this study is directly related to my future clinical work.”