Penn State researcher addresses diversity in brain-behavior studies

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — The importance of demographics in studying the human brain is the focus of the January 2016 issue of Psychophysiology, guest edited by Lisa Gatzke-Kopp, Penn State associate professor of human development and family studies and co-funded faculty member in Penn State's Social Science Research Institute.

Gatzke-Kopp also authored an overarching introduction about the topic in the special issue published today (Dec. 18). Her piece provided an overview of three key demographic variables: race and ethnicity, sex and gender, and socioeconomic status. According to Gatzke-Kopp, these variables have been shown to moderate associations between psychophysiological process and behavior.

“We’ve seen a historical shift from the 1950s, when research studies almost exclusively involved Caucasian men, toward an increased push for diversity,” said Gatzke-Kopp. “As we expand our work to include all different types of people, we are beginning to see that diversity extends to how our brains function.

“We are finding people can use their brains in different ways to accomplish the same goal. For example, men and women can be equally good at doing a particular task, but will use different regions of their brain to do it. If we ignore these differences and treat everyone the same, we don’t learn as much about anyone.” 

The effects of these demographic factors in moderating brain-behavior associations also sheds light on how the human brain develops.  “The human brain is highly adaptive and goes through a lot of development in the early part of life,” Gatzke-Kopp explained. “Different environments can influence how the brain wires itself through experiences.”    

Gatzke-Kopp’s paper also discusses the critical ethical and moral challenges in this type of research.  “Scientists worry about the risks of their research being misunderstood and misinterpreted,” said Gatzke-Kopp. “Finding that the brain functions differently between groups does not mean that one is better than the other, task performance is equally as good in both groups. All it means is that there is more than one solution to a problem, and different brains can solve the same problem different ways.”

This work has important implications for thinking about how diversity extends beyond the surface. “If we ignore diversity in who we study, we may be reaching conclusions about how the brain works that simply don’t apply to large sub-groups of people,” Gatzke-Kopp stated.

The special issue also contains articles on topics ranging from sex-related differences in brain-behavior during early childhood to the impacts of maternal depression and overcrowded housing on impoverished Latino children.

Psychophysiology is published monthly by the Society for Psychophysiological Research by Wiley. It is an open-access electronic research journal devoted to identifying and defining the connections between physiology and psychology.

Gatzke-Kopp  was supported in part by a grant from the National Science Foundation and by Penn State’s Social Science Research Institute.

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Last Updated December 18, 2015