Center for the Neuroscience of Embodied Cognition (CeNEC)
Director: Lisa Aziz-Zadeh PhD
Our bodies are one of the most fundamental ways we understand ourselves, the world, and other people. The Center for the Neuroscience of Embodied Cognition’s research program explores the idea that rudimentary sensory-motor brain regions, which may have been originally designed for processing our own body states, may be intrinsically involved in processing aspects of higher cognition, including language, thought, emotions, empathy, and social understanding.
Current projects include:
From Sensory-Motor to Social in Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD)
Children with ASD often have both motor and sensory deficits in addition to the social deficits that are the hallmark of the disorder. However, the neurological basis of how those sensorimotor deficits relate to the core social deficits is poorly understood. Here we compare motor deficits in ASD to motor deficits in Developmental Coordination Disorder (DCD). Similarly, we compare sensory deficits in ASD to sensory deficits in Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD). In this way, we hope to better understand the relationship between sensory-motor processing to social deficits in ASD. This work is supported by an NIH R01 grant.
Relationship between the Gut Microbiome, the Brain, and Behavior
The gut has three times more neurons than the spinal cord, and most of those connections send information from the gut to the brain. Much of the signaling in the gut comes from metabolites produced by the gut microbiome. However the relationship between the gut microbiome, the brain, and behavior is poorly understood. Here we try to better understand this relationship in both typically developing individuals as well as individuals with ASD. This work is supported by a grant from the Department of Defense.
Embodied Semantics and communication
Most of our metaphors are embodied: we “handle” situations; we “kick-off” a new year; we “chew over” decisions. Using behavioral studies we explore how language processing involves sensorimotor brain representations. We investigate both literal and metaphorical language.
Otherness and Belonging
Belonging is a fundamental relationship grounded in the interaction between an organism and its world. It is always a multi-directional relation where the world includes the social, physical, emotional, and cultural environment available to the organism. For human beings, belonging is a critical factor both in the creation and in the perception of meaning in life. It is just as important as food or water for our survival and well-being. A lack of belonging is an existential breakage in a human being’s relationship to their environment and to the world, and is a fundamental human need (Maslow, 1943). From an evolutionary perspective, the predisposition to belong is central to human existence and culture. Personality traits that motivate individuals to gain acceptance and avoid rejection are indispensable tools enabling survival and reproduction.
The goal of the current project is to understand the basic science underlying the human need and the multiple dimensions of belonging, and to provide data on bridging strategies that mitigate the feeling of otherness. Data generated by this project will inform intervention strategies. It is a collaboration between the USC CeNEC lab, the UC Berkeley Othering and Belonging Institute, and Google.
Past projects include:
The mirror neuron system post-stroke
How might we use our knowledge of the mirror neuron system to help motor recovery post-stroke? In a series of studies funded by the NIH, the American Heart Association, and the Dana Foundation, we explore how the mirror neuron system may be utilized for stroke neurorehabilitation. These studies use MRI, fMRI and behavioral data.
Period: Apr 2021 – Oct 2022
Gastrointestinal (GI) issues are common in children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) and can lead to a lower quality of life. Several studies have linked these GI issues to altered gut microbial makeup in ASD. But research has not yet clarified how this may be related to the core features of ASD…
Period: Sep 2018 – Aug 2021
Federal Funding $506,659
This goal of this study is to better understand the relationship between variation in autism spectrum disorder (ASD) along both social and motor dimensions by showing how these variations, using functional MRI imaging, relate to functioning in social and motor brain networks and functional…
Period: Apr 2015 – Jan 2020
Federal Funding $2,151,952
Developing a Framework for Integrating Virtual Reality with fMRI and EEG to Measure the Multidimensional Neural Evaluation of Basic and Social Emotions ⟩
Period: Jul 2016 – Dec 2018
Intramural Funding $25,000
The scope of the USC-led experiment is to conduct a fMRI study on metaphorical language processing and emotion processing to approximately 20 subjects.
Period: Jan 2012 – Dec 2017
Private Funding $293,273
Modulating Motor Behavior by Action Observation and Imitation: Implications for Stroke Rehabilitation ⟩
Abstract Investigators will use MRI and fMRI imaging to examine whether, and how best, the mirror neuron system can be activated following stroke to optimally tailor stroke rehabilitation for individual patients. The human mirror neuron system (MNS) refers to brain motor regions that respond when…
Period: Jan 2012 – Jun 2016
Private Funding $200,000
The Mirror Neuron System (MNS) and Action Observation after Stroke Affecting Cortical Motor Regions ⟩
The putative human mirror neuron system (MNS) is defined as motor brain regions that respond both when we perform an action, and when we observe similar actions being performed by others. Thus, the motor system may be engaged without overt movement. Rehabilitation of motor function after stroke is…
Period: Jul 2011 – Jun 2014
Federal Funding $162,000
This study aims to understand how individuals with stroke process actions. In particular, are similar brain regions active when they make an action and when they watch someone else make an action? What parts of the brain are active when they observe an action that, due to their stroke, they…
Period: Jul 2010 – Jun 2014
Private Funding $231,000
Prosody, the melody and intonation of speech, is an extremely important and usually undervalued component of human communication. A significant component of human social interactions depends on prosody. The aim of the present project is to explore the application of recent approaches and concepts in…
Period: Sep 2009 – Dec 2011
Federal Funding $161,690
Study pinpoints three brain regions displaying telltale patterns in autistic individuals ⟩
USC scientists are first to identify patterns of white matter connectivity exclusive to core autistic symptoms, pointing out potential flaw in previous autism neuroscience research.
November 14, 2022
New study shows children with autism have less activity in brain region that observes, simulates movements ⟩
Team of USC and UCLA researchers first to pinpoint reduced frontal lobe activity, helping explain some social characteristics unique to autism.
January 28, 2021
Keep your friends close, but … ⟩
Counterintuitive findings from a new USC study show that the part of the brain that is associated with empathizing with the pain of others is activated more strongly by watching the suffering of hateful people as opposed to likable people.
Robert Perkins, in USC News | October 16, 2013
USC study charts exercise for stroke patients’ brains ⟩
A new study has found that stroke patients’ brains show strong cortical motor activity when observing others performing physical tasks — a finding that offers new insight into stroke rehabilitation.
Robert Perkins, in USC News | June 11, 2013
Learn to be more understanding by watching The Bachelor (this season, anyway) ⟩
A new USC study has found evidence suggesting that the brain works hard to understand those who have different bodies when watching them in action.
Robert Perkins, in USC News | January 23, 2013
Do you like me now? ⟩
Whether you like someone can affect how your brain processes their actions, according to new research from the Brain and Creativity Institute at the USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences.
Suzanne Wu, in USC News | October 5, 2012
Scientists search for source of creativity ⟩
USC researchers are working to pin down the exact source of creativity in the brain and have found that the left hemisphere of your brain, thought to be the logic and math portion, actually plays a critical role in creative thinking.
Robert Perkins, in USC News | March 5, 2012
USC Researchers Explore the Source of Empathy in the Brain ⟩
According to a new study from USC, even failing to possess a full complement of limbs will not stop your brain from understanding what it is like for someone else to experience pain in one of them. It may, however, change the way your brain does so.
Robert Perkins, in USC News | July 18, 2011
Picture Your Relationship to the Boss ⟩
A study in PLoS ONE by researchers from the Brain and Creativity Institute at USC and Peking University in Beijing examines how white Americans and Chinese people in China respond to pictures of their boss, suggesting cultural differences in our responses to authority figures.
Suzanne Wu, in USC News | February 16, 2011
Brain Finds Gestures Not So Familiar ⟩
New research suggests that the brain uses deliberate thought to respond even to familiar gestures.
Carl Marziali, in USC News | September 29, 2010
No Rest for the Narcissist ⟩
Narcissists spend their resting time deep in thought, a new imaging study shows, though such reflection likely revolves entirely around the thinker.
Carl Marziali, in USC News | September 17, 2010
Sing-Song Speakers and Measures of Empathy ⟩
Unless you’re a robot, your speech has a musical quality to it. This pitch-and-rhythm variation, known as prosody, conveys emotion. A new study suggests that people whose speech is most sing-songy may have a stronger ability to empathize with others.
Allison Bond, in USC News | August 11, 2010