Emily Jordan Sees High Rewards in Addiction Research

Carnegie Mellon University junior Emily Jordan uses computational tools to investigate how risk and reward mechanisms affect addiction outcomes.

“Addiction is a prominent health concern,” said Jordan, who studies biological sciences and psychology. “We take on the perspective that addiction plays a role in learning, and we see it as a learning issue. Everyone learns from their successes and failures, their gains and losses. Addiction impairs how an individual learns from these gains and losses, thereby affecting their decision making.”

Jordan was recruited and mentored by Cristina Bañuelos, a former lab manager in the Cognitive Axon (CoAx) Lab. Under Bañuelos’ mentorship, Jordan initially assisted on computational research and how environmental stimuli provide feedback.

“Cristina was doing an independent project in the lab, looking at how different ways that we learn from errors could affect the quality of our judgments,” said Timothy Verstynen, associate professor of biomedical engineering and psychology and principle investigator of the CoAx Lab. “She was working on this model that was inspired in part by how the brain learns in the context of a very specific task. Emily and Cristina have been working together on finalizing this project, which is undergoing revisions at a peer-reviewed journal.”

Jordan’s current research is an extension of her research with Bañuelos. Under Verstynen’s mentorship, she has adapted the model to look at the neural mechanisms behind risk and reward. She received funding for her work through a Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowship, which offers CMU undergraduates $3,500 to conduct full-time summer research.

“Emily’s research could start to shed light on addiction,” Verstynen said. “It will give us some insights into the reasons why certain people become prone to making addictive decisions. A lot of the time, we think of addiction as being a flaw in the individual. What Emily’s research signals there is a continuum of the way we use information that, in some contexts, can lead to addictive decisions.”

Jordan has modeled two pathways found in the brain: one responds to gains or rewards, and the other responds to losses or punishments. So far, her research shows that addictive behavior occurs when there is a higher sensitivity in the gain mechanisms than the loss mechanisms.

“Being more highly aware of the gains or having a lower sensitivity to losses would promote an individual’s inclination to follow an addictive reinforcement schedule,” Jordan said. “It’s almost like you’re so blinded by the rewards that you’re not seeing the loss effects. It can be described as chasing that first high where you have this really positive gain experience.”

Jordan said she plans on continuing her research for her senior thesis with the aim of creating a more defined model of addictive behavior.

“Emily is an incredibly hard worker,” Verstynen said. “She will work on a problem until it is solved, and that sort of diligence and determination really is a sign of an effective future scientist.”

Outside of the lab, Jordan is a member of the Carnegie Mellon varsity swim team. A lifelong competitive swimmer, she said being part of the team has been meaningful to her since it provides a balance of sport and friendship.

“It’s a great sport to be involved in at school because during the semester, things can get hard and overwhelming,” Jordan said. “It’s nice to have an outlet that allows me to compete physically in a supportive environment.”

Jordan also spends time preparing for a career in medicine. She volunteers at West Penn Hospital as part of an elder life program that provides positive interventions for geriatric patients at risk for delirium. Additionally, she serves as president of the Doctors of Carnegie Society, an association of pre-med students at Carnegie Mellon.

Though Jordan plans on becoming a medical doctor, she sees research as part of her future.

“Physicians are still able to do research during their time working, especially working in hospitals,” Jordan said. “A couple of physicians I’ve shadowed have mentioned they’re interested in research, and they’re still able to pursue that while treating patients clinically. That’s affirmed that research is something I can still pursue while having my main passion be for medicine and patient care.”

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