2010 Janet Taylor Spence Award

Michael J. Frank
Brown University

What is the focus of your award-winning research?

I study the neural and computational mechanisms of simple forms of learning and decision making, and how these mechanisms also contribute to higher level cognitive functions including working memory and inhibitory control. This theoretical work is applied to develop an understanding of the mechanisms leading to cognitive deficits in brain disorders, with a particular focus on Parkinson’s disease. We test implications of the models in experiments that manipulate medication and deep brain stimulation status. We also apply genetic and electrophysiological analysis (EEG) to understand the neural basis of individual differences in cognition using the same theoretical framework. Much of our work has provided theoretical and empirical analysis of overlapping mechanisms associated with reinforcement learning (“Go” and “NoGo” learning), working memory updating, and cognitive control induced by decision conflict.

How did you develop an interest in this area?

The basal ganglia have been well studied in the context of motor control, but their role in cognitive function has been increasingly appreciated over the last 20 years. I was initially captivated by the strikingly similar anatomy from motor to cognitive circuits, which are largely preserved across species, and I wondered whether a core computational function could be attributed to the basal ganglia across these domains. A particularly influential set of studies by Roshan Cools and colleagues showed that although dopamine medications in Parkinson’s improved performance in some tasks, they caused deficits in others. I found these data intriguing and set out to develop a computational account of the data and to test and refine it with experiments of my own. The majority of my research program grew out of this initial endeavor.

Who are your mentors and/or biggest psychological influences?

Randy O’Reilly (PhD mentor), Tim Curran (postdoc mentor), Jonathan Cohen, Peter Dayan, Trevor Robbins, Daniel Weinberger, and Roshan Cools all played instrumental roles in shaping my thinking about cognitive, neuroscientific, computational, clinical, and genetic issues. None of my work would be possible without these, and many other, leaders in the field.

What unique factors have contributed to your early success?

I study a brain system that is implicated in several aspects of motivation and cognition — the disruption of which, in one form or another, can explain aspects of cognitive dysfunction. I’ve hugely benefited from the skills and perspective offered by collaborators having complementary expertise across multiple levels of analysis, from the most basic neuroscientific and genetic issues to clinical implications. And, I’m captivated by the research — motivation goes a long way.

What does winning this award mean to you both personally and professionally?

The Go learner in me is reinforced, and the conflict monitor is motivated to pursue other accounts of the data.