Join the Lab

Research Environment and Opportunities

The environment at USC is an outstanding one for researchers with interests in cognitive neuroscience, emotion, decision making and aging. The USC Leonard Davis School of Gerontology is the oldest and largest school of gerontology in the world and has long been a leader in the field, with its multidisciplinary faculty doing research in neuroscience, molecular biology, psychology, sociology, demography and public policy. The Psychology Department and the Neuroscience Program have outstanding faculty in cognitive and affective neuroscience. There are also faculty members and other researchers with related interests in other schools and departments across campus, such as at the law, business and medical schools.

The Dornsife Imaging Center has a research-dedicated 3T MR scanner capable of performing structural, spectroscopic and functional scans of human subjects as they view and listen to stimuli. In addition, there are peripheral devices allowing collection of eye movements, skin conductance responses, heart rate, blood pressure and respiratory rhythm. The Center also provides study preparation space, a mock scanner, and an imaging analysis laboratory. There is a full-time physicist who assists investigators with the technical details necessary to conduct studies and a full-time data analysis consultant. The Center is less than one block away from the USC Emotion & Cognition Lab.

Undergraduate Research Assistants

We are looking for bright and motivated undergraduates who are interested in learning more about the cognitive neuroscience of emotion, decision making and memory. As an Undergraduate Research Assistant in the USC Emotion & Cognition Lab, you would work closely with other members of the lab on one or more of our ongoing research projects. Your involvement would include running experiment sessions with participants, helping to enter, code and analyze data, preparing stimuli for projects and doing literature searches. There is also the opportunity to get involved in neuroimaging (fMRI) research. Research assistants typically volunteer their time or earn course credit for working in the lab, rather than being paid. Because of the training involved in becoming a research assistant in our lab, we ask for a minimum 12 hour commitment per week, usually for at least two semesters. If you are interested in gaining research experience by working in our lab please apply with this application link. You are also welcome to call us at 213-740-9543 or email us at matherlab@usc.edu for more information.

Prospective Graduate Students

If you are wondering – yes! The Emotion & Cognition lab will have a potential opening for a new graduate student for the 2022-23 academic year. 

We recruit from four different Ph.D. programs at USC:  

 Gerontology, Psychology, Neuroscience, or Biomedical Engineering.

Given this broad scope, we unfortunately are unable to correspond with prospective students before they apply other than to answer specific logistical questions. However, once you have applied, please email Mara Mather to let her know to look out for your application. In the meantime, here is some information/guidance that we hope you find helpful.  

Our lab is currently working on the following research questions: 

  1. How does the brain’s noradrenergic system help slow or accelerate cognitive decline in older adults? Pathology related to Alzheimer’s disease is seen in a small nucleus in the brainstem—the locus coeruleus— in most people by the time they are in their 30’s (Braak et al., 2011). The locus coeruleus is the source of most of the brain’s noradrenaline and initial findings suggest that it becomes hyperactive during aging and the early progression of Alzheimer’s disease (Mather, 2021; Weinshenker, 2018). Using new fMRI techniques to localize and quantify the locus coeruleus, our lab was the first to identify correlations between locus coeruleus MRI contrast and cognition in cognitively healthy older adults (Clewett et al., 2016). We are currently examining how locus coeruleus structure relates to cognitive functioning (e.g., Dahl et al., 2019) and the progression of Alzheimer’s disease (e.g., Dutt et al., 2020).
  2. Can we intervene to optimize noradrenergic function in older adults to slow the progression of Alzheimer’s disease? The ultimate goal of our research is to use emerging knowledge about the locus coeruleus/noradrenergic system to develop interventions that prevent the progression of Alzheimer’s disease in cognitive healthy older adults’ brains. We have exciting preliminary data suggesting that a heart rate variability biofeedback intervention can slow the rate of hippocampal atrophy in older adults, and we currently are designing a new intervention trial to follow up on these findings and test the role of the noradrenergic system in the effects. In addition, we are interested in how relationships between noradrenaline/heart rate variability and the trajectory of cognitive decline may differ in older African-Americans, who show different relationships between heart rate variability and psychological health.
  3. How do older adults’ exhibit a positivity effect in despite their low heart rate variability? The positive psychology movement studies psychological flourishing to learn how to optimize well-being. From this perspective, emotional functioning in aging is a rich vein to tap. Older adults typically experience better moods and less of a negativity bias in attention and memory than younger adults and do so even as heart rate variability — a robust marker of psychological well-being — declines significantly. About 20 years ago, we identified a positivity effect in older adults’ attention and memory (Charles et al., 2003; Mather & Carstensen, 2003; Mather & Carstensen, 2005). One explanation that can account for many of the findings is that, due to a sense of limited time, older adults chronically focus more on emotional goals than do younger adults. Importantly, according to this goal-directed account, older adults need prefrontal cognitive control resources to implement their emotional goals. Indeed, giving people a cognitive load during viewing emotional pictures eliminates the age-related positivity effect (Joubert et al., 2018; Knight et al., 2007; Mantantzis et al., 2018; Mather & Knight, 2005). However, we have recent findings that challenge this account, as we see a positivity effect that emerges in early attention, before cognitive control would be expected to operate— and despite its early timing, it also is disrupted by a cognitive load (Kennedy et al., 2019). We have also found that a heart rate variability intervention increases both younger and older adults’ positive memory biases and that baseline individual differences in heart rate variability are strongly associated with positive recognition biases. These links between heart rate variability and positive biases fit with the general literature on heart rate variability, but are surprising in the context of aging, as older adults show marked declines in heart rate variability. We are currently planning studies to examine underlying mechanisms that might account for these relationships. 
  4. What is the impact of reproductive aging on the stress response system? Both normal aging and Alzheimer’s disease are associated with changes in the stress response system and cognition. In normal aging, dysfunction of the stress response system results in elevated or prolonged stress reactivity, while baseline cortisol levels are elevated in Alzheimer’s disease (Lupien et al., 2016). However, estradiol replacement in postmenopausal women attenuated the cortisol response to stress and the impact of stress on cognition (Herrera et al., 2017). A pattern suggesting that loss of estradiol after menopause contributes to dysfunction of the stress response system in women. Yet, it is not well understood how changes in estradiol from pre- to peri- to post-menopause affect the stress response system or the effects of stress on cognition. It is also of interest to know whether hormone-related changes in the stress response system are related to Alzheimer’s disease risk, since Alzheimer’s disease is associated with additional stress system dysfunction. Recent work shows that the menopause transition is associated with increased beta-amyloid load in APOE-4 carriers (Mosconi et al., 2021), making it possible that stress system dysfunction during the menopause transition would be greatest in APOE-4 carriers, or those with greatest risk for developing Alzheimer’s disease. We are currently planning studies to examine how the stress response system changes as a function of reproductive age and to what extent these changes are related to markers of Alzheimer’s disease risk. 

Our lab is committed to Open Science principles of data sharing (we have shared all our published behavioral data online since 2011) and maximizing replicability of our findings. Our Ph.D. and postdoc alumni have an outstanding record of success at attaining competitive faculty and non-academic jobs (see list of former lab members here)

We would love to have you join our lab if you are interested in these or related research questions and have the following skills/traits (or are interested in developing them!): 

  1.    Have programming experience. This is super helpful for so many aspects of our research. If you do not yet have this experience, we urge you to seek it out! Take a programming class at your university or take one online. Start exploring the power of writing your own code. Experience with MATLAB, R, and Python would be especially useful for the work we do in our lab. 
  2.    Have experience with EEG/MRI/eyetracking/ECG analyses. Much of our research uses magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) and/or psychophysiological measures collected during rest or emotional tasks. We also recently started acquiring EEG/ERP data. 
  3.    Are from a group underrepresented in science. We are a diverse group from many different backgrounds and welcome opportunities to learn from different perspectives. 
  4.    Have a strong sense of curiosity. Being able to devote your career to studying the brain is an amazing gift if you enjoy constantly asking questions and learning new things.
  5.    Are a voracious reader. Reading a lot (both in and beyond science) will help you develop your writing skills. It turns out that being a top-notch writer is a huge advantage as a scientist.
  6.    Are committed to truth and accuracy. We are in science to contribute to knowledge about the brain and how it works. To help move the field forward, it is critical that our methods be rigorous and our results replicable and reproducible.
  7.    Want your work to have a positive impact. The ultimate goal of our research is to identify interventions that can slow the rate of brain aging. To achieve this challenging goal, we need creative and motivated team members. 

If this list describes you (or who you would like to be!) please do consider applying to our lab. 

If you chose to apply, you can increase the competitiveness of your application by: 

  1.     Reading our papers.
  2.     Brainstorming ideas on how to follow-up on our previous work or address our current research questions (see above).
  3.     Discussing your related interests and ideas in your personal statement.

References 

Braak, H., Thal, D. R., Ghebremedhin, E., & Del Tredici, K. (2011). Stages of the pathologic process in Alzheimer disease: age categories from 1 to 100 years. Journal of Neuropathology and Experimental Neurology, 70(11), 960-969.  

Charles, S. T., Mather, M., & Carstensen, L. L. (2003). Aging and emotional memory: The forgettable nature of negative images for older adults. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 132, 310-324.  

Clewett, D., Lee, T. H., Greening, S. G., Ponzio, A., Margalit, E., & Mather, M. (2016). Neuromelanin marks the spot: Identifying a locus coeruleus biomarker of cognitive reserve in healthy aging. Neurobiology of Aging, 37, 117-126.  

Dahl, M. J., Mather, M., Düzel, S., Bodammer, N. C., Lindenberger, U., Kühn, S., & Werkle-Bergner, M. (2019). Rostral locus coeruleus integrity is associated with better memory performance in older adults. Nature Human Behaviour, 3, 1203–1214.  

Dutt, S., Li, Y., Mather, M., Nation, D. A., & Initiative, A. s. D. N. (2020). Brainstem volumetric integrity in preclinical and prodromal Alzheimer’s disease. Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease, 77(4), 1579-1594.  

Herrera, A. Y., Hodis, H. N., Mack, W. J., & Mather, M. (2017). Estradiol therapy after menopause mitigates effects of stress on cortisol and working memory. The Journal of Clinical Endocrinology & Metabolism, 102(12), 4457-4466.  

Joubert, C., Davidson, P. S., & Chainay, H. (2018). When do older adults show a positivity effect in emotional memory? Experimental Aging Research, 44(5), 455-468.  

Kennedy, B. L., Huang, R., & Mather, M. (2019). Age differences in emotion-induced blindness: Positivity effects in early attention. Emotion 

Knight, M., Seymour, T. L., Gaunt, J. T., Baker, C., Nesmith, K., & Mather, M. (2007). Aging and goal-directed emotional attention: distraction reverses emotional biases. Emotion, 7(4), 705.  

Lupien, S., Ouellet-Morin, I., Herba, C., Juster, R., & McEwen, B. (2016). From vulnerability to neurotoxicity: A developmental approach to the effects of stress on the brain and behavior. Epigenetics and neuroendocrinology, 3-48.  

Mantantzis, K., Maylor, E. A., & Schlaghecken, F. (2018). Gain without pain: Glucose promotes cognitive engagement and protects positive affect in older adults. Psychology and Aging, 33(5), 789.  

Mather, M. (2021). Noradrenaline in the aging brain: Promoting cognitive reserve or accelerating Alzheimer’s disease? Seminars in Cell and Developmental Biology 

Mather, M., & Carstensen, L. L. (2003). Aging and attentional biases for emotional faces. Psychological Science, 14, 409-415.  

Mather, M., & Carstensen, L. L. (2005). Aging and motivated cognition: The positivity effect in attention and memory. Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 9(10), 496-502.  

Mather, M., & Knight, M. (2005). Goal-directed memory: the role of cognitive control in older adults’ emotional memory. Psychology and Aging, 20(4), 554.  

Mosconi, L., Berti, V., Dyke, J., Schelbaum, E., Jett, S., Loughlin, L., Jang, G., Rahman, A., Hristov, H., & Pahlajani, S. (2021). Menopause impacts human brain structure, connectivity, energy metabolism, and amyloid-beta deposition. Scientific Reports, 11(1), 1-16.  

Weinshenker, D. (2018). Long road to ruin: noradrenergic dysfunction in neurodegenerative disease. Trends in Neurosciences, 41(4), 211-223.

Prospective Postdocs

If you are interested in joining the lab as a postdoctoral fellow, please email Mara Mather to discuss the possibility. You may also be interested in applying for the Multidisciplinary Research Training in Gerontology Program.