Cognitive psychologist Kathleen McDermott, PhD, faced a dilemma after graduating from Rice University in 1996: Although a state university had offered her a faculty position, she wanted to learn the functional neuroimaging techniques that were transforming cognitive neuroscience.

So, despite the advice of some mentors that she snap up the faculty position, McDermott instead accepted a postdoctoral fellowship at the Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, where she learned to use functional neuroimaging methods and then to apply them to studying cognitive processes.

"I knew that there wouldn't be too many opportunities in which I could learn both neuropsychology and basic behavioral psychology," McDermott says. "So I had to take the risk."

The risk paid off, says McDermott. It enabled her to expand her research focus from studying basic cognitive processes to applying functional neuroimaging to human memory. Moreover, as soon as her two-year postdoctoral fellowship ended, she landed a faculty position at Washington University as a research assistant professor of psychology. Within three years, she was an associate editor of Memory.

And last December, the American Psychological Foundation (APF) and APA's Science Directorate awarded McDermott the 2004-2005 F. J. McGuigan Young Investigator Prize, which she will use to map the interactions between cognitive and memory-related processes.

"McGuigan's work, which studied the neurological basis of human behavior, and McDermott's [memory] work cross a number of the same paths," says Henry L. Roediger, III, PhD, her doctoral mentor. "So it seems like she's a natural fit for the award."

Exploring false memory

McDermott's interest in the neurological underpinnings of human behavior stems from her original, cognitive psychological interest in false memory.

As an undergraduate at the University of Notre Dame, McDermott would often peruse the university library's books on false memories when she needed a break from studying.

"False memory research was in the air in the early 1990s," McDermott explains.

Yet while false memory issues like misremembered child abuse dominated headlines and popular discussion, McDermott noticed that few people were studying everyday memory errors.

So when she entered graduate school, she and Roediger began conducting studies to induce people to recollect recently experienced events that did not occur.

For instance, in one study the researchers read participants lists of 15 words--like "bed," "rest" and "awake"--that are associated with a word that is not presented--in this case, "sleep."

The team found that participants had a strong recollection of not only hearing the word "sleep," but specifically when they heard it. What's more, a week later they were more likely to remember words they did not hear than any word they actually did hear.

The study was published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory and Cognition(Vol. 22, No. 3, pages 814-816), and the finding was dubbed the DRM (Deese/Roediger/McDermott) paradigm.

After moving to Washington University, McDermott investigated what might be behind the DRM effect.

She and postdoc Jason Watson, PhD, presented participants with 16-word lists and had them recall the words. They found that false recall of the related, but not presented, word increased and then decreased as the time between the presentation of the words increased from a fraction of a second to five seconds per word. From there, they theorized that people link a word to related concepts in their semantic memory through language networks--both by sound and meaning. For instance, when people hear "bed" they also think of related words like "sleep," as well as words that sound similar, like "head." Then, they adapt their memory to eliminate errors.

"Remembering the missing word is an intelligent mistake," McDermott says. "Our brain uses language networks to make sense of the words--otherwise, making sense of words would drive us crazy."

Neuroimaging and the future

Currently, McDermott is extending her work with language networks to help physicians prevent loss of language among patients with brain tumors. She, Watson and Jeff Ojemann, MD, are presenting patients with 16-word lists while performing functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) in an effort to pinpoint brain areas essential to language.

Presently, the gold standard in identifying language regions is cortical stimulation mapping, a procedure in which surgeons remove the skull and awaken the patient during surgery, according to McDermott. Identifying the language regions prior to surgery would enable doctors to preserve those regions in patients who cannot be awakened during surgery due to their age or medical condition.

While the early returns on the research are promising, McDermott says researchers need to conduct more studies of the fMRI technique before it can replace cortical stimulation mapping. In that spirit, McDermott will use the $25,000 McGuigan prize to continue applying fMRI techniques to basic research on clinical problems, such as mapping language and memory regions in neurosurgical patients.

McDermott's aims to push the boundaries of cognitive psychology are in line with the philosophy of the award's namesake, F. Joseph McGuigan, says Lisa Straus, APF executive director.

"Like McGuigan, McDermott is looking to expand the limits of the field," says Straus.

Indeed, McDermott also plans to expand her work on memory to include education issues, like how test-taking can influence one's later memory for the tested material.

"I can't help adding elements to my research program," she says. "The problem is I can't subtract anything."