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Interview with Prof. Kieffaber

Paul KieffaberYou recently attended the Society for Psychophysiological Research conference. What findings did you present? 

The relationship between mirror neuron activity in the primary motor cortex and autism spectrum personality traits.  High levels of autism spectrum personality were associated with reduced mirror neuron activity. This was a project driven by specific student interests but is directly related to my overall research program investigating cognitive deficits in clinical populations.

Is that what you’re primarily working on now?

Right now, my research focus is the neural basis of time perception. We are testing typical young adults and older adult participants to identify the neural markers of altered time perception in older adults. We are finding is that altered time perception in older adults may be due to the dysfunction of temporal memory operations over central-parietal cortex.

What’s the “big” question you seek to answer?

At the core of my research are questions about how attention is implemented by the brain. Attention is function of the brain that allows us to focus our behavior by selecting only the most relevant environmental stimuli.  Understanding the function of mirror neurons in the motor cortex helps us to understand how perception is translated into action.  Understanding the neural basis of time perception helps us to understand how the brain learns to anticipate stimuli and plan behaviors accordingly.

How or when did you decide to become a scientist?

When I took Physiological Psychology as an undergraduate at Colorado State University I had my first opportunity to hold a human brain in my hands. Could this lump of meat really produce all of an individual’s thoughts, actions, and emotions?  I knew then that I would like to spend my career finding answers to those questions.  

Any specific role models or inspirations that drove the decision?

I was inspired to pursue a career in science by a T.A. in one of my psychology courses who spoke about his research in the field of cognitive neuroscience.  Later, my experience working with adults with acquired brain injuries helped to mold my interests in understanding how cognitive functions of the brain were related to specific pathology. 

Where would someone find you when you’re not in the lab or classroom?

[Chuckling.] I’m always in the lab. But you can occasionally find me on my kayak on Powhatan creek, or out for a run on Jamestown Island.  I’m working my way up to the Colonial half-marathon in February.  I’m also learning to play my new ukulele which was a birthday gift from the fabulous research assistants in my lab.