Pilot Grants

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2019 Grant Competition now Open

The Scientific Research Network on Decision Neuroscience and Aging will award 2-3 grants up to $30,000 in 2019 to junior researchers or senior researchers new to the area. The proposed research must focus directly on adult development and aging or on life course decisions that improve health and well being in old age.

The grants will be awarded to help provide researchers new to the area with resources for data collection, task development, and/or to add an older adult sample to a current/planned study focused on young adults. The overall goal is to provide the initial resources to support a larger grant application, so make clear your future grant writing plans in the application. Priority will be given to graduate students, post-doctoral fellows, and junior faculty especially those from underrepresented groups in science. Senior researchers new to the area will also be considered. Evaluation criteria include the combination of theories and methods from at least two disciplines, methods that facilitate data sharing and overall transparency, a comprehensive research team with expertise in all relevant disciplines, and a focus on life course decisions that improve health and well being in old age. The budget should be entirely or almost entirely allocated to data collection and not salary support. Individuals are not eligible if they have received a major grant from the NIA focused on aging and decision making in the past 3 years (although trainees who have advisors with recent/current NIA grants are eligible). Applicants do not have to be US citizens but have to be at a US institution.

Please submit a 3-page proposal (single-spaced in the style of the Research Strategy section of an NIH grant), a 1-page line-item budget (e.g., 30 90-minute scans @ $550/hr = $24,750, 30 subjects payments @ $100 = $3000), and NIH biosketches for all key personnel as a single PDF document via email to srndna@gmail.com. The max $30,000 budget limit is direct costs; the budget should indicate the F&A (indirect cost) rate that your institution has negotiated with NIH for 2019. Note that we may have more flexibility to fund less expensive studies (e.g., $5,000) for projects in earlier stages of development or for individuals who need quick pilot data for a grant application. Questions regarding this grant competition can be directed to srndna@gmail.com.

The application deadline is March 1, 2019

Proposals will be reviewed by a small group of anonymous network affiliates and scored following NIH/CSR guidelines. Applications scored in the top 50% will receive complete scores and comments using NIH score sheets. We expect funding decisions will be made by May 2019.


Current & Previous Grants

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Do Age Differences in Associative Learning and Stimulus Generalization Lead to Age Differences in Trust?

Brittany Cassidy (UNC Greensboro psychology), Kendra Seaman (Duke Center on aging), Jessica Cooper (Emory psychology)

When meeting others, people make quick decisions on whether to trust people or not that affect decision-making and that pose serious consequences for physical, interpersonal, and financial well-being. The extent to which people trust others, however, is not stable across the lifespan. Rather, older adults exhibit excessive trust relative to younger adults. This excessive trust leaves older adults particularly such serious consequences, including financial fraud. Why older adults exhibit excessive trust, however, is poorly understood. One explanation for their excessive trust is that older adults may learn to trust differently than do younger adults. Critically, recent work has identified stimulus generalization, by which learned value spreads between perceptually similar stimuli, as a potential mechanism for learning to trust. Here, people place more trust in people who look like someone whose past behaviors reflect trustworthiness, and place less trust in people who look like someone whose behaviors reflected untrustworthiness. This spread of social value is reflected in brain activity. Caudate and amygdala activity track, respectively, the generalization of positive (trustworthy) and negative (untrustworthy) social value, and affect trust decisions toward unfamiliar others. Because social value needs to be learned and because prior work suggests that older adults learn negative cues less than do younger adults, less spread of negative social value to unfamiliar others may represent one route by which older adults exhibit excessive trust. If older adults have less negative value representations of untrustworthy people based on their experiences with them than do younger adults, older adults should also transfer less negative social value to unfamiliar others who are resemble a past untrustworthy person and exhibit more trust in these unfamiliar others than younger adults. The proposed study adopts an interdisciplinary approach to examine this possibility at both the behavioral and neural levels.

Individualized behavioral, neural, and computational markers for altered latent state representations across healthy aging

Linda Yu (brown neuroscience), Matthew Nassar (brown neuroscience), Benjamin Eppinger (Concordia Loyola psychology)

Age related decision-making deficits are most pronounced when consequences of actions have to be learned through experience, particularly when they require behavioral flexibility when the environment changes. Latent state representations, which are hidden contexts of the world that have to be inferred based on available features, enable us to learn a set of actions rewarded within a certain context, quickly learn a new set of appropriate actions when the hidden state changes, and rapidly retrieve the original action set when returning to a previously experienced context. The orbitofrontal cortex is thought to play a primary role in representing and dynamically updating latent states. Previous work from our group showed that older adults can successfully recognize changes in latent states but show a subtle failure to calibrate learning based on uncertainty about the state – hinting at deficits in latent state representations. The proposed study will use computational modeling, behavioral measures, and functional imaging to investigate how latent state representations change across the lifespan, and relate them to performance on measures of cognitive function and standard decision-making tasks.

Age-related changes in memory-based choices and its neural basis

Zhihao Zhang (UC Berkeley Marketing), Winston Chiong (UCSF Neurology), Andrew Kayser (UCSF Neurology), Ming Hsu (UC Berkeley Marketing)

Significant age-related changes in decision-making and associated neural circuitries have been widely documented1-3, which may in turn place vulnerable elderly individuals at increased risk for disadvantageous medical and financial outcomes. Despite this substantial progress, major gaps remain in applying current neuroeconomic frameworks to understand financial and health-related decision-making in the real world. In particular, past studies on economic and consumer decision-making have distinguished between contexts involving “stimulus-based choices” (SB-C) and those involving “memory-based choices” (MB-C). These two contexts differ in that whereas all relevant information is physically present at the time of choice in the former, the latter requires decision-makers (DMs) to recall what they are seeking in order to find the relevant choice alternatives. This project aims to take the first step in understanding the quantitative relationship between semantic memory, valuation, and choices. Specifically, using computational modeling and neuroimaging, we will develop and validate a quantitative model of MB-C, which explicitly captures the process by which semantic memory provides input to and constrains choices. Moreover, using this approach, we will begin initial efforts to characterize age-related changes of MB-C in a cohort of healthy aging participants. Results from this proposal will help inform future studies that investigate the neural basis of changes of MB-C across adulthood and in neurodegenerative diseases. More broadly, this line of research has the potential to broaden our understanding of the interplay between memory and valuation in healthy and pathological conditions.


Social Reward and Aging: Identifying the Neural Underpinnings of Peer Influences


Close relationships have powerful influences over our lives, supporting physical and emotional well-being and fulfilling social needs to connect. Interactions with close others drive many decisions by altering the value placed on the outcomes of choices (e.g., choosing healthy vs. unhealthy eating habits). Recent evidence indicates that the social context created by the presence of a friend enhances responses within the brain’s reward circuit and influences collaborative decisions in young adults. Yet, it remains unclear whether reward-enhancing effects of close relationships change between younger and older adulthood. Such changes could have important implications for both understanding the nature of social influence on decision making across the lifespan and crafting social interventions to improve social decisions in older adulthood. This proposal will assess age-related changes in reward-enhancing effects of close relationships. Fifty participants (25 young adults, ages 20-35; 25 older adults, ages 65-80) will participate in two neuroimaging tasks adapted from our prior work investigating the effects of close relationships on social reward processes—an economic trust game and a simple card guessing game for shared monetary rewards. Participants will play both games with three partners: a close friend; a stranger (confederate); and a computer (non-social control). We hypothesize that older adults will exhibit enhanced reward-related responses (compared to young adults) within the striatum in response to reciprocity and shared monetary rewards with a close friend relative to other partners, which will be tied to increased connectivity between the default-mode network and the striatum. We expect variability in relationship quality (e.g., social closeness) will moderate these neural patterns. Critically, based on evidence suggesting an increased vulnerability to fraud in older adults, we also anticipate that older adults will demonstrate an increased propensity to trust strangers, suggesting an altered ability to integrate enhancements of positive experiences selectively within close relationships. Such results would suggest that the effects of social relationships on the neural representations of rewarding social experiences become more potent with age, while the ability to integrate these signals into adaptive behavior may be impaired.

Interactions of Motivational Incentives and Cognitive Control in Older Adult Decision-Making


This project focuses on the role of motivation and cognitive control in mediating changes in the psychological and neural mechanisms of older adult decision-making. Converging evidence suggests that many age-related changes in behavior can be attributed to a decline in older adults’ abilities to exert cognitive control over thoughts and actions, and a putative core problem in cognitive aging may be impairment in goal maintenance and proactive control. Other theoretical frameworks have suggested that age-related affective changes motivational reprioritization among older adults, though virtually no work has been done to explore the neural mechanisms that contribute to age-related changes in motivational processes. The primary aim will be to examine age differences in cognitive control mechanisms that enable motivational integration of primary and secondary incentives (e.g., money, liquids). We hypothesize that older adults’ decisions to engage in cognitively effortful control strategies will be less sensitive to the motivational value of the current task context, particularly when value estimation depends on incentive integration. To test this hypothesis, we utilize a powerful novel experimental paradigm that is cognitively demanding and more resembles the realistic and complex decisions older adult perform in daily life. Thus, we aim to identify the core neural mechanisms underlying age-related changes in motivational and cognitive control processes (both independently and their interaction), which will have translational relevance towards a more comprehensive understanding of older adult decision-making.

Effects of Episodic Memory Retrieval on Intertemporal Choice in Cognitively Normal Older Adults


When making choices between outcomes realized at different times (intertemporal choices), people prefer rewards sooner rather than later, even when the delayed reward is larger. This tendency, temporal discounting, varies widely across individuals. Determining the neural mechanisms that underlie temporal discounting is important because overly myopic choices can be detrimental to people’s health and well-being. Understanding intertemporal choice in aging is especially important, as older adults face many critical intertemporal decisions (e.g., retirement and estate planning, medical decisions). There is some evidence that the episodic memory system plays a role in promoting more patient choice: cues that trigger episodic thinking (about the future or the past) prior to intertemporal choice reduce temporal discounting. The mechanism by which this occurs is unclear, however. It could be that episodic richness drives more patient choice, but it could also be due to other factors, such as positive affect. In this project, we probe for this mechanism by turning to a population marked by decline in episodic memory richness, and variability in this decline: older adults. Here we test if episodic recall (autobiographical memory retrieval) prior to intertemporal choice reduces temporal discounting in older adults. We also investigate the neural mechanism by which memory retrieval impacts choice, and the extent to which episodic memory ability predicts the size of the behavioral effect. This research will contribute to our understanding of the neural mechanisms underlying intertemporal choice, and it may inspire novel interventions for fostering patient choice. 


Feedback-based learning in aging: Specific contributions of striatal and hippocampal systems

Nichole Lighthall (Post-Doctoral Fellow, Center for Cognitive Neuroscience, Duke University), Roberto Cabeza (Professor of Psychology and Neuroscience, Duke University), Scott Huettel (Associate Professor of Psychology and Neuroscience, Duke University), John Pearson (Postdoctoral Associate, Center for Cognitive Neuroscience, Duke University).
Award Dates: 9/1/14 – 3/30/15

Summary: Learning plays a central role in decision making across the life span, and appears to mediate age differences in specific decision making domains including risk taking. These age differences may result from decline in brain regions that represent feedback-based learning signals. The striatum is commonly implicated in feedback-based learning, but a growing number of studies indicate that feedback learning is also dependent on the hippocampus. Age-related change to these brain regions may explain age differences in feedback-based learning and decision making, as the striatum and hippocampus both decline in normal aging. However, age differences may be more pronounced with greater reliance on the hippocampus, as behavioral research strongly suggests greater decline in hippocampal versus striatal functions. The proposed study will investigate age differences in striatal- and hippocampal-supported feedback learning using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI). The study will utilize a feedback-based learning task that includes different levels of delay between choice and outcome. A recent fMRI experiment with younger adults, found that adding a delay between choice and outcome resulted in a shift in learning signals from the striatum to the hippocampus.Our research will expand on these findings in two ways. First, by directly comparing neural correlates of feedback-based learning in younger and older adults. And second, by adding post-learning behavioral tasks that will shed light on the relationship between learning signals in the brain and decision outcomes. Specifically, the current study will determine whether neural correlates of feedback-based learning predict inter-individual differences in cue preferences, accuracy of explicit outcome-probability estimates, and choice behavior (willingness-to-pay).

Publication: Lighthall, N. R., Pearson, J. M., Huettel, S. A., & Cabeza, R. (2018). Feedback-based learning in aging: Contributions and trajectories of change in striatal and hippocampal systems. Journal of Neuroscience.

The role of oxytocin in prosocial decision making in aging across humans and monkeys

Steve Chang (Assistant Professor of Psychology, Yale University), Natalie Ebner (Assistant Professor, Department of Psychology, University of Florida).
Award Dates: 9/1/14 – 3/30/15

In social environments, humans are routinely faced with decisions concerning self and others that directly determine the nature of their social interactions. The nine-amino acid neuropeptide OT has been proposed to centrally mediate various social processes, such as pair-bonding in monogamous voles, social memory formation in mice, prosocial behavior in monkeys, mother-infant affiliation in humans, as well as modulate more complex behaviors such as trust formation in humans. Across species, it is important to note that although most OT-mediated behaviors are categorically prosocial, OT sometimes controls neural signals that trigger antisocial actions as well depending on individuals, gender, and social contexts. Thus, it is critical to view the peptide as a neuromodulator either amplifying or attenuating neural circuit operations primed by context-specific factors. Recently, we have shown that increasing OT level in the brain via OT inhalation (confirmed by cerebrospinal fluid draws) enhances both prosocial decision preference as well as self reinforcement in rhesus macaques depending on decision context. In this proposal, we will extend our paradigm to examine the neuroendocrinological basis of prosocial decision making in aging. Critically, we will apply a parallel platform across humans and monkeys to establish a new cross-species collaboration aimed at supplementing our understanding of the neural basis of decision making across the adult lifespan with the strength of neurobiological investigations in animals.



Oxytocin and Social Decision Making in Aging

Natalie Ebner (Assistant Professor, Department of Psychology, University of Florida), Ronald Cohen (Professor of Aging and Geriatric Research, University of Florida), David Feifel (Professor, Department of Psychiatry, UCSD)
Award Dates: 8/1/13 – 7/31/14

Determining whether an unfamiliar person is trustworthy and approachable are crucial decisions humans routinely face in their social environments. Older compared to young adults show increased interpersonal trust, rendering them more susceptible to trusting ill-intending people and scams, seriously compromising emotional and physical health and social life. This age-related increase in trust may be due to older adults’ decreased ability to accurately read other people’s social and emotional cues; it may also be due to age-related alterations in brain function associated with trust-related decision making and/or specific peptides/hormones that directly affect prosociality. The neuropeptide oxytocin has been shown to elevate interpersonal trust. However, nothing is known about age-related changes in the oxytocin system in the context of trust-related decision making. The proposed study adopts a neuroendocrine and socio-behavioral approach to determine the effects of oxytocin on decisions of trust in financial as well as health contexts in aging. Following a standardized, double-blind procedure, participants self-administer synthetic oxytocin (or placebo) intra-nasally before engaging in an economic trust game, a food trust game, and a facial trustworthiness task, while undergoing fMRI. This project brings together a team with expertise in aging, neuroscience, and psychopharmacology. It constitutes an example of best practice in combining multiple methodologies offering different levels of analysis on the phenomenon of interest in a conceptually-driven manner. The findings will advance basic science in clarifying neuroendocrine and behavioral relationships in the context of trust and decision making in aging. In addition, information gained from this project will have the potential to inform interventions targeted at social and emotional dysfunction in the elderly with the long-term goal to help older adults make better decisions in social contexts and reduce social stress and anxiety.


Ebner, N. C., Lin, T., Muradoglu, M., Weir, D. H., Plasencia, G. M., Lillard, T. S., Pournajafi-Nazarloo, H., Cohen, R. A., Carter, C. S., & Connelly, J. J. (2018). Associations between Oxytocin Receptor Gene (OXTR) methylation, plasma oxytocin, and attachment across adulthood. [Special issue] International Journal of Psychophysiology, 1-11.

Ebner, N. C., Chen, H., Porges, E., Lin, T., Fischer, H., Feifel, D., & Cohen, R. A. (2016). Oxytocin’s effect on resting-state functional connectivity varies by age and sex. Psychoneuroendocrinology, 69, 50-59.

Ebner, N. C., Kamin, H., Diaz, V., Cohen, R. A., & MacDonald, K. (2015). Hormones as "difference makers" in cognitive and socioemotional aging processesFrontiers in Emotion Science, 5, 1595, 1-15.

Ebner, N. C., Horta, M., Lin, T., Feifel, D., Fischer, H., & Cohen, R. A. (2015). Oxytocin modulates meta-mood as a function of age and sex. Frontiers in Aging Neuroscience, 7, 175, 1-7.

Ebner, N. C., Maura, G. M., MacDonald, K., Westberg, L., & Fischer, H. (2013). Oxytocin and socioemotional aging: current knowledge and future trends. Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, 7, 487.

Grants: Uncovering and surveilling financial deception risk in aging (R01-AG057764)

Acute Stress and Age-Related Differences in Reward Processing and Executive Function

Anthony Porcelli (Assistant Professor of Psychology, Marquette University; Assistant Adjunct Professor of the CTSI, Medical College of Wisconsin), Kristy Nielson (Professor of Psychology, Marquette University; Associate Adjunct Professor of Neurology, Medical College of Wisconsin), April Harkins (Assistant Professor in Clinical Lab Science, Marquette University).
Award Dates: 8/1/13 – 7/31/14

Summary: In part due to advances in modern medicine, people are living longer than ever before. Aging is associated with cognitive declines across functional domains, at the extreme end converting to dementia or neurodegenerative disorders such as Alzheimer’s Disease. Even “healthy aging” can be associated with declines in memory and executive functioning (EF). Large individual differences in cognitive decline in the aged population indicates that risk factors exist, which implies they can be delineated and used to predict cognitive decline and to develop early interventions. One such factor may be exposure to stress. While much research has been conducted on the effects of stress and age on memory and certain aspects of EF, decision-making is only beginning to be examined in this context. The purpose of the proposed study is to examine the influence of aging and stress on decision-making via an essential decision-related faculty – reward processing (RP). Aged and young adult participants will complete a comprehensive battery of neurocognitive assessments as well as series of testing tools designed to evaluate decision-making on multiple levels. After exposure to an acute stressor or a no stress control procedure, participants will engage in a series of EF and RP tasks while undergoing fMRI scanning. Measurements of neuroendocrine (e.g., cortisol and alpha-amylase) and peripheral physiological (e.g., skin conductance and heart rate variability) correlates of the stress response will also be acquired. Our interdisciplinary approach represents the combined effort of researchers with expertise in neuroscience, aging, executive function, and neuroendocrinology. Findings resulting from the proposed research may provide new insights into early indicators of cognitive decline associated with age and exposure to stress, possibly suggesting directions for developing and implementing early interventions.



Neural Mechanisms of Value-Directed Remembering in Younger and Older Adults

Michael Cohen (PhD student in Psychology; UCLA), Alan Castel (Assistant Professor of Cognitive Psychology; UCLA), Jesse Rissman (Assistant Professor of Cognitive Psychology; UCLA), Barbara Knowlton (Professor of Behavioral Neuroscience; UCLA), Aimee Drolet (Professor of Marketing; UCLA)
Award dates: 2/1/12 – 10/1/13

The ability to use memory effectively requires one to focus on more important to-be-remembered information at the expense of less important information. Previous studies (e.g., Castel et al., 2002) have shown that, at least in certain contexts, older adults are able to successfully prioritize the encoding of valuable information. For example, when faced with the task of learning a set of words that have varied point values assigned to them, older adults, while typically recalling fewer overall words than young adults, actually tend to be closer than young adults to achieving the optimal point total given the number of items that they do recall. Such data indicate that healthy older adults are able to successfully implement the strategies necessary to direct their limited cognitive resources towards remembering those things that are most important. Still, relatively little is known about the cognitive and neural mechanisms that underlie the ways in which high-value items are processed differently from less valuable items, particularly in healthy older adults. Our proposed fMRI study seeks to adapt Castel et al.’s behavioral paradigm to characterize neural correlates of value-directed remembering in young and older adults. Finally, to provide a stronger connection between our laboratory measure of value-incentivized remembering and real-world economic outcomes, we plan to relate individual differences in selectivity on the word memory task with more traditional measures of economic decision-making.

Publication: Cohen, M. S., Rissman, J., Suthana, N. A., Castel, A. D., & Knowlton, B. J. (2016). Effects of aging on value-directed modulation of semantic network activity during verbal learning. NeuroImage, 125, 1046-1062.

Financial Decision Making at Retirement

Vinod Venkatraman (Assistant Professor of Marketing; Temple University), John Payne (Professor of Business, Law, and Psychology; Duke University)
Award dates: 2/1/12 – 7/31/13

This project examines complex decisions like annuities and ducumulation of retirement investments in older adults using a multi-methodological approach that involves behavioral, eye tracking, and neuroscience experiments. A major emphasis will be on the development and validation of decision-making tasks that represent the complexities of real-world decisions and yet are suitable for experimentation using all three methodologies. This research will be carried out in two phases: an exploratory phase where we will design and validate complex decision-making tasks that are suitable for laboratory evaluation using eye-tracking and fMRI and in phase 2, we will obtain pilot data about the effects of aging on decision preferences in this task.



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Pilot Grant FAQ

Q: Do I have to route this proposal at my institution like a normal federal grant?
A: Please do not do that. It creates an unnecessary paperwork/email burden for us. The pilot grant review can be viewed as a pre-review of a potential subward application. You will not be sending us a formal grant application; it's essentially a 3-page idea. Just email the proposal to us directly. (Warning: Your institution may be annoying and require you to route it internally anyway.)

Q: If I already have a similar federally-funded project on aging, am I eligible for a pilot grant?
A: No, but your trainees may be eligible as long as they propose a project that is mostly independent from your existing grant.

Q: Do I have to be an "aging researcher" to be eligible for these grants?
A: No, but you do need to have someone with aging expertise as a core member of your team who is involved in study design and data analysis.

Q: Is the budget limit total costs or just direct costs?
A: The limit is for direct costs, but please indicate your F&A/indirect rate in the budget proposal.

Q: How are the funds disbursed?
A: If you are selected for funding, we will issue a subaward to your institution on our NIA grant. You will get full details about this if you are selected.