Furman Engaged: Psych researcher keeps ethics in mind
Bridget Scalia ’23 was diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) before she was a teenager.
“I was always really fascinated by the disorder because I saw how much it impacted so many areas of functioning in such a variety of ways – some positive, some negative,” said the psychology major and Furman Fellow.
Her interest in ADHD – and a desire to help those with it – led to her research project, “Memory Processing in the Resting Brain – Effect of ADHD.” Scalia and the other Furman Fellows will present their work during the 15th annual Furman Engaged on April 14.
Does rest help memory?
In her sophomore year, Scalia started working in the Sleep and Cognition Lab with Erin Wamsley, an associate professor of psychology. The lab uses an electroencephalogram (EEG) to measure the electrical activity in the brain under different conditions. With Wamsley, Scalia started researching how brief periods of rest after learning may improve memory.
“The study stemmed from learning that the memory improvement seen with eyes-closed quiet rest after learning in Sleep Lab research was associated with certain resting-state brain activity,” Scalia said.
She also found research showing that individuals with ADHD have different resting-state brain activity.
“That led me to wonder whether individuals with ADHD also show memory improvement with rest, and if perhaps memory deficits seen in ADHD may be related to differences in resting-state brain activity,” she said. “How can we use that knowledge to put people with ADHD in a better place for academic success by understanding how they learn and remember differently?”
Gathering the data
To find out, she spent most of last summer collecting data from student volunteers, some with ADHD and some without.
The test subjects reported to the lab twice. Both lab sessions would start with the subject listening to a short story, then immediately being tested on it. Then came a 15-minute break: Electrodes attached to the face and scalp recorded brain activity while the subject was resting with eyes closed in one session and playing video games in the other.
The subject was tested again after the break. The second test was compared to the first to see how well the memories stuck, and the brain activity measurements during both breaks were analyzed.
Preliminary results have been “surprising and a bit disappointing,” said Scalia.
“We’re still in the early stages of analyzing results, but so far we haven’t seen any difference significantly in either their memory or their brain activity,” she said.
Which was where things got even more intriguing for Scalia.
“The most interesting part is there are a number of research studies that claim that people with ADHD have significant differences in brain activity,” she said. “Yet my study and others have seen no evidence of that. So, that calls them into question: Have these studies been reliable and accurate?”
Questions of ethics
The existing research needs to be reviewed, said Scalia, who has gotten an up-close perspective on the realities of her chosen field.
“There’s definitely a very big issue in psychology with replicating previous findings, which the professors have been really passionate about teaching us about,” she said.
Researchers eager for publication have been known to manipulate their statistical analyses to artificially inflate a study’s p-value – the measure of statistical significance – a practice known as “p-hacking,” Scalia said.
“Journals don’t want to publish your research if you don’t have a statistically significant number,” she said. “So, you have a lot of instances of people messing with their data.”
Scalia originally planned to pursue a Ph.D. in clinical psychology after graduation, but “my time at Furman has shown me how interdisciplinary my interests are,” she said.
Her minor in medicine, health and culture “really furthers my interest in medical ethics and sociology, and then my psych research furthered my passion for understanding mental illness,” she said. “So now I’m hoping to blend those interests and pursue a career in science policy. The ethical questions that come with psychological research impact how we diagnose and treat people with mental illnesses.”
Furman Engaged and Clearly Furman: The Campaign for Our Third Century
We’re excited to connect the 15th Annual Furman Engaged with our campaign launch to amplify and showcase all that our students work toward during the year, and how deserving they are of our support. Join us for this signature event and others April 13-15 as we feature the best that Furman has to offer. Learn more at furman.edu/campaign.
Furman Engaged: April 14
Furman Campaign Launch Weekend: April 13-15
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