Date published: 4/3/2013

My research uses behavioral and neuroimaging techniques to study the mechanisms of human memory. A core focus is on understanding how the brain flexibly regulates the formation, maintenance, and retrieval of memories depending on our present circumstances and behavioral goals.

The decisions we make in the present are often guided by information we retrieve from past experiences, allowing us to make informed predictions about what might lie ahead. These cognitive processes largely operate on autopilot, with little need for conscious control. And yet, at any given time, we can purposefully regulate our memory system to bias processing towards important information and filter out distractions. Similarly, we can target specific details about our past experiences that we wish to retrieve. My research program seeks to elucidate the brain mechanisms that mediate this interplay between memory and cognitive control. Using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), coupled with carefully designed behavioral tasks, I aim to understand how our memory system is influenced by moment-to-moment changes in our task goals, as well as how we use information retrieved from memory to guide our behavior.

One general theme of my research is the use of innovative analysis techniques that take full advantage of the information-rich fMRI data we collect. Although fMRI has proven to be a useful tool for exploring the role of individual brain regions, its ability to image activity levels throughout the entire brain also makes it well suited for characterizing the functional interactions between brain regions. I have contributed to the development and application of new analytic methods for measuring how distant regions communicate with one another during cognitive tasks. My work in this realm has showcased how regions of the prefrontal cortex, known to be important for cognitive control, interact with perceptual areas of the brain, as well as with memory-related areas such as the hippocampus, to help prioritize the memorization of goal relevant information. I am also examining how these neural networks dynamically adjust their connectivity as we toggle the focus of our attention between stimuli in the external world and the thoughts and memories that occupy our "internal world."

More recently, I have been using machine-based pattern recognition techniques to "read out" a person's fMRI activity patterns and uncover details about what that person was perceiving, imagining, or remembering at any given moment in time. My use of this approach to decode information about individual memories was featured in Discover Magazine, and I have since been invited to give talks to audiences of judges and lawyers to discuss the implications of brain-based memory detection for the legal system. Current research in my laboratory is using high-resolution fMRI scanning of the human hippocampus to gain a better characterization of the neural patterns that emerge when a past memory is vividly brought back to mind.

Originally from the small (but famous) town of Woodstock, NY, my academic journey began on the East Coast where I took my first courses in cognitive neuroscience at Bard College at Simon's Rock. Convinced that I had found my calling, I transferred to Brown University, where I earned a Bachelor's in Cognitive Neuroscience and gained hands-on experience with neuroimaging research. I then headed westward for grad school, and never looked back. I earned my Ph.D. in Psychology from UC Berkeley and completed a postdoctoral fellowship at Stanford University. In July 2011, I joined the faculty of the UCLA Department of Psychology, with a joint appointment in the Department of Psychiatry and Biobehavioral Sciences.

To learn more about my research, please check out the Rissman Memory Lab website.