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It's the year of the brain for 2007's Early Research Award winners.

Research projects on the effects of prenatal mercury exposure on the developing brain, how people compensate for the uncertainty of sensory perception and the mental systems involved in legal decision-making all won $1,000 stipends from APA's Science Student Council. The awards can be used toward conference travel experiences.


MERCURY EXPOSURE

Research has found that pregnant women who eat fish with high levels of mercury are more likely to give birth to children with cognitive and motor deficits. But, says Karienn Souza Montgomery, a behavioral and cellular neuroscience doctoral student at Texas A&M University, "Not enough was known about the long-term effects of low-dose mercury exposure, and the public has the right to know the consequences of consuming it."

She focused her research on the effect of mercury on developing brains. In her study, Souza Montgomery used a water-maze task to test 6-month-old mice exposed prenatally to mercury. The mice had only been exposed to the mercury through their mothers and, when they became adults, no longer had any traces of mercury in their brains, but they still showed behavioral and learning deficits.

Souza Montgomery believes these results have implications for humans as well. In fact, she is pregnant with her first child and has sworn off fish for the duration of her pregnancy.


UNCONSCIOUS ESTIMATION

You hear a noise outside--it could be a burglar or a scavenging squirrel.How is this uncertainty treated by your cognitive machinery? Ed Vul, a third-year doctoral student at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, found that information about such ambiguity is stored unconsciously.

In his study, Vul asked participants to identify one circled letter from a rapid stream, but he gave them multiple guesses to do so on each trial. The participants' second guesses reflected that they referred to an internal probability distribution. However, Vul found that participants weren't aware they were using this strategy.


CRIME AND PUNISHMENT

Joshua Buckholtz's award-winning research is in the nascent area of neurolaw: the study of legal decision-making through the lens of neuroscience. In particular, Buckholtz is looking at the neurological processes that have enabled humans to establish sophisticated systems of right and wrong, reward and punishment.Although researchers have hypothesized that humans have developed cognitive mechanisms that allow them to establish and enforce social norms, "very little is known about how the human brain represents these norms, processes their violation and makes decisions about appropriate punishment," says Buckholtz, a doctoral student in neuroscience at Vanderbilt University.

In particular, Buckholtz's research addresses the kinds of decisions made by jurors in criminal cases-so-called "third-party" punishment, where the decision-maker does not know the criminal defendant and is not directly affected by the crime.

In the next few years, Buckholtz will continue to use functional neuroimaging and neuropsychological techniques to examine how people make these decisions.


For more information on how to apply for the 2008 Science Student Council Early Researcher Awards, visit www.apa.org/science/era.html.