Alyssa J. Kersey

University of Rochester

Research Interests:

I am interested in understanding the neural hallmarks of cognitive development. Specifically, I am studying the functional and structural changes that occur in the brain during and as a result of concept acquisition. In undergrad, I focused primarily on the conceptual development of letters (Kersey & James, 2013). As a graduate student, I am now studying the development of numerical, spatial, and tool concepts. My research spans fields including developmental cognitive neuroscience, cognitive development, and educational neuroscience.

Current Areas of Research:

Neural circuitry underlying numerical development
with Jessica Cantlon

Papers: Kersey & Cantlon, 2017, Journal of Neuroscience; Kersey & Cantlon, 2017, Langauge Learning & Development
Number is a fundamental human concept that supports mathematical cognition. This line of research examines the neural circuitry that underlies numerical processing in early childhood and how the development of this circuitry relates to cognitive development. These projects compare the development of numerical cognition to the development of other non-symbolic magnitudes (e.g., color and size) and to other cognitive domains (e.g., reading). This allows us to understand which aspects of the neural circuitry are distinct to number and which are shared. These projects utlizie both task-based and "naturalistic" paradigms in order to better understand children's cognitive and neural development in the real world. Recently, we showed evidence of neural tuning to numerosity in the intraparietal sulcus of the youngest children tested to date with fMRI (3- to 6-year-olds; Kersey & Cantlon, 2017, JNeurosci). This study also went beyond previous work in adults and found a relation between neural and perceptual tuning at the individual level in children.

Development of functional networks for processing and using tools
with Jessica Cantlon, Brad Mahon, Courtney Lussier, and Tyia Clark; Karin James

Papers: Kersey et al., 2016, Cerebral Cortex; James & Kersey, 2017, Developmental Science
In order to successfully use a tool, we must integrate information about what the tool looks like, how it is used, and what it can be used for. To support tool use, humans have developed a network of regions that are consistently recruited while processing tools. However, little is known about how this tool processing network develops. Recently, we showed that the core components of the tool-processing network in parietal and temporal cortex are established by age 4, but the network undergoes refinement between ages 4 and 8 (Kersey et al., 2016, Cerebral Cortex). In a related line of research, we showed that children also rely on regions of parietal cortex for reaching, grasping, and manipulating objects (James & Kersey, 2017, Dev Sci). These types of visually-guided actions are important for picking up and using tools.

Neural changes underlying learning in infants
with Lauren Emberson

Papers: Kersey & Emberson, 2016, Developmental Science
Infants' brains are able to begin learning about the world around them from the moment they are born. This area of research uses fNIRS (functional near-infrared spectroscopy) to examine changes in infants' brain activation (oxygenation) during perceptual learning. Specifically, we look at the changes in the hemodynamic response over several learning blocks and how the hemodynamic response relates to unexepcted perceptual events. We show that over the course of learning, regions in occipital, temporal, and frontal cortex show an inverted U-shape response (Kersey & Emberson, 2016, Dev Sci).

Research Methods:

Imaging Methods (Adults, Children, Infants)
fMRI & MRI: Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) is a non-invase technique that measures changes in brain activity during perceptual and cognitive tasks. I employ a variety of designs including block- and event-related designs, adaptation paradigms, and naturalistic viewing paradigms. Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) collects information about brain structure. We can then measure the thickness of the brain to assess how cognition and development are related to changes and individual variation in brain structure. The Rochester Center for Brain Imaging is equipped with a Siemens 3T scanner used for both fMRI and MRI scans. In addition, the imaging center contains a "mock" scanner, which we use to prepare participants, especially child participants, for their imaging sessions.

fNIRS: Functional near-infrared spectroscopy is a non-invase technique measures brain activity using near-infrared light sensor. Infants and young children who participate in NIRS studies with the Rochester Baby Lab at the Rochester Center for Brain Imaging wear a lightweight cap that contains the near-infred lights and sensors. This cap allows children to sit upright and move freely during the experimental task.

Behavioral Methods (Children)
Children's cognitive abilities are assessed through fun, interactive, game-like tasks. Children who come to the KidNeuro Lab may play games on a touchscreen computer to help us learn how they think about the world. Children may also play a variety of non-computer games to evaluate cognitive abilities such as working memory, counting, and numerical knowledge. In addition, we collect information about math knowledge, verbal skills, and nonverbal skills using standardized assessments (e.g., TEMA and KBIT).