From brain connections to memories: ASU psychology graduate student wins National Science Foundation fellowship


Kimberlee D’Ardenne

Blake Elliott, a graduate student in the Department of Psychology at Arizona State University, has received a Graduate Research Fellowship from the National Science Foundation (NSF). The prestigious fellowship funds Elliott’s tuition and stipend for three years and provides research funds. Elliott uses magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) to study how connections within the brain contribute to what we remember.

It was a breakfast burrito that started Elliott on the path to wanting to know about connections between neurons, which are the cells that make up the brain, and human behavior. A track-and-field coach at his high school bought Elliott the burrito while talking about running competitively.

“Success on the track changed my life. It motivated me to keep improving, which caused me to train harder and smarter,” Elliott said. “I began reading everything I could on kinesiology, exercise physiology, nutrition and sports psychology.”

Elliott’s love of running fast introduced him to science and eventually landed him at ASU as a star member of the track team and an undergraduate psychology student. Elliott finished his collegiate running career last year when he began working toward his doctorate in psychology.

“When I was an undergraduate student at ASU, I became interested in how we can remember things that are valuable to us,” he said. “As a graduate student, I decided to use MRI methods that measure brain activity and map brain pathways to look at how the brain tracks value and uses it when we remember.”

To study what role brain connections play in memory, Elliott had to connect two research labs in ASU’s Department of Psychology. Elliott works with Gene Brewer, associate professor of psychology, in the Memory and Attention Lab and with Samuel McClure, associate professor of psychology, in the Decision Neuroscience Lab.

Brewer’s lab studies memory, and one area of focus is how the brain uses its limited resources to remember what is most relevant, important or useful.

“We cannot remember all the events and details of our lives,” Brewer said, “and we need signals that let us know something is important or relevant and is a priority to remember.”

Scientists think the dopamine system broadcasts signals in the brain that indicate an event or detail is valuable enough to remember. McClure’s lab studies the role of the dopamine system in decision-making by using mathematical models and by developing new human neuroimaging methods.

“Dopamine monitors how valuable something is to us. It tracks the value of everything, from cheeseburgers to abstract goals, and sends those value signals throughout the brain,” McClure said. “The goal of my work with Blake and Gene is to link the value signal to memory formation in the brain.”

Elliott will use the MRI scanner to create a map of the connections between brain areas where dopamine is made and brain areas where memories are formed. Working with McClure and Brewer, Elliott will compare the strength of those connections with value signals from mathematical models of memory formation.

“It is rare that you can find a link between a complex behavior, such as memory, and individual connections in the brain,” McClure said. “Pursuing this link is what makes Blake’s research innovative.”