LRDC and the Brain Institute

The Learning Research and Development Center (LRDC) is an internationally renown center for research on learning and education, spanning basic academic domains of reading and mathematics, and extending to innovative research in educational technology, social and motivational aspects of learning, and cognitive neuroscience. Advances in human brain imaging have allowed LRDC researchers to study the functional networks of the brain that support learning, including reading, mathematical understanding, and language learning. From lab-based studies of learning to read in a second language to iPad displays of connections inside the brain, LRDC has developed a strong research component that reflects the importance of understanding the brain bases of learning.

Current Researchers

Marc Coutanche

Julie Fiez

Melissa Libertus

Charles Perfetti, Director, LRDC

Walter Schneider

Christian Schunn

Natasha Tokowicz

Tessa Warren

Nora Presson

Advances in human brain imaging have allowed LRDC researchers to study the functional networks of the brain that support learning, including reading, mathematical understanding, and language learning.



Marc Coutanche

Marc Coutanche

Assistant Professor, Department of Psychology

Research Scientist, LRDC

Our memory is built on connections: between fragments of knowledge, collections of neurons, and brain systems. When we successfully learn something, we must form new relationships at every one of these levels. My lab examines how we form these connections, and how we might provoke their formation. In recent cognitive investigations, I have found that introducing new words and images to people in certain ways might help rapidly incorporate the new information into their memory networks, potentially by bypassing certain brain systems. I also ask how sleep aids memory formation. My work suggests that sleep helps us mentally link related knowledge, perhaps leading to the “Aha!” moment that many of us experience after sleeping on a problem. My brain imaging research uses computational techniques to “decode” brain activity recorded when we learn and remember. I develop techniques to probe the “bid data” that we collect from brain imaging scans to elucidate how different brain regions interact as a system. These kinds of approaches are very powerful at tracking and predicting individual differences from brain activity. All of this work is very relevant for our efforts to understand the brain and cognitive skills of people with learning and memory deficits, such as individuals with dyslexia, learning disorders, Alzheimer’s disease, and natural aging. An understanding of how learning approaches can trigger or bypass certain brain systems could prove very valuable for these and other groups. More information can be found at Dr. Coutanche’s website: www.mcoutanche.com/


Julie Fiez

Julie Fiez

Professor, Department of Psychology

Senior Scientist, LRDC

My lab is studying how the brain uses feedback to learn about words and numbers. We rely on a broad-based and interdisciplinary cognitive neuroscience approach to address questions that fall within two predominant strands of research. One strand is focused on the neural basis of language processing. Topics of interest include the articulatory and phonological codes involved in working memory, and the ways in which different writing systems influence the representation and processing of orthographic information. A second strand is focused on basic learning systems in the human brain. We are especially interested in how the basal ganglia facilitate individuals’ use of information about positive and negative outcomes to subsequently improve their performance on a task. This research has guided the development of educational interventions that improve basic number representations in the brain and that yield gains in complex math abilities. We are also developing methods that will allow stroke survivors to participate in clinical and research studies through videoconference software and mobile device technology. These methods are allowing us to study how damage to different parts of the brain affect learning, language, and mathematical ability. The results of this research are being used to understand how culturally transmitted skills, such as reading and math, rewire the brain. More information can be found at Dr. Fiez’s website: www.fiezlab.us/


Melissa Libertus

Melissa Libertus

Assistant Professor, Department of Psychology

Research Scientist, LRDC

In the Kids’ Thinking Lab (Director: Dr. Melissa Libertus), we explore how children think and especially how they learn about numbers and math in early childhood. We use behavioral and electrophysiological measures (electroencephalography [EEG] and event-related potentials [ERPs]) to examine the earliest foundation of mathematical thinking in infancy and how children use this foundation to learn about math later in life. We also examine the role of parents and teachers in shaping children’s emerging mathematical thinking. In one of our current studies, we are looking at parents’ and elementary school-aged children’s brain activity as they are watching educational videos that contain math and non-math content. We are examining whether parents and children spontaneously process math and non-math content differently in their brains and whether the similarity between a parent and his or her child is greater than between unrelated strangers. We are also examining whether this spontaneous brain activity relates to children’s math abilities. Our research has important implications for math education and what shapes individual differences in children’s math abilities, especially early in life. More information can be found at Dr. Libertus’s website: http://www.lrdc.pitt.edu/kitlab/


Charles Perfetti

Charles Perfetti

Distinguished University Professor, Department of Psychology

Director, LRDC

The ability to read is based in an acquired network of brain areas that links visual input with language functions. The focus of our lab is investigating how this ability is developed. Our research addresses 1) the extent to which the brain network is universal across languages and writing systems, for example by comparing Chinese with English reading; 2) the kinds of instruction that support students’ learning to read in a new language and writing system; 3) The moment-to-moment brain processes that support reading comprehension; 4) Learning by children and adults of new vocabulary words. In addressing these questions, we use electrophysiology measures (EEGs and Event Related Potentials [ERPs]), fMRI, and behavioral studies. The results of our research add to both the basic science on the neural basis of learning to read and reading comprehension and to translational applications. These applications include how to increase children’s vocabulary knowledge, how to enhance foreign language instruction, and how to help children who struggle in reading and reading comprehension. More information can be found at Dr. Perfetti's website: http://www.lrdc.pitt.edu/perfettilab.

Walter Schneider

Walter Schneider

Professor, Department of Psychology

Senior Scientist, LRDC

Our research focuses on mapping the functional and anatomical network structures of the brain. We have developed methods for studying the connections between brain regions and the changes that can occur as a consequence of learning, development, or traumatic brain injury (TBI) and have generated fundamental advances and new tools for High Definition Fiber Tracking (HDFT). This step forward in imaging technology has opened up new avenues for research and produced tools for understanding how the brain changes in response to learning or injury. See article in September 2015 Discover Magazine “Broken Cables,” pages 52-59. More information can also be found at Dr. Schneider’s website: http://www.lrdc.pitt.edu/schneiderlab/


Christian Schunn

Christian Schunn

Professor, Department of Psychology

Senior Scientist, LRDC

Science learning often involves squeezing meaning from complex information contained in densely-packed textbooks. Learners extract the meaning from textbooks through the use of different reading strategies. Common reading strategies are unfortunately very ineffective, and more effective reading strategies are difficult to teach and consistently apply. Using neuroscience data of students learning high school biology or physics, my research examines the neural foundations of the more effective strategies to better understand how they work and why students have difficulty using these strategies. For example, is there a problem of students beginning to use the more effective strategies and then applying them inconsistently (perhaps by zoning out) or ineffectively (perhaps from lack of supporting knowledge)? To answer these questions, we bring to bear various data sources (e.g., eyetracking point of regard, pupil size, neural activity patterns, brain connectivity patterns). We are also developing new technologies that better support learners in applying effective reading strategies. In the long run, we would like these new technologies to not only be inspired by neuroscience theories and data but also directly take advantage of neuroscience data on learners gathered and used in real-time. More information can be found at Dr. Schunn’s website: http://www.lrdc.pitt.edu/schunn


Natasha Tokowicz

Natasha Tokowicz

Associate Professor, Department of Psychology

Senior Scientist, LRDC

We study the way that adults learn a second language. In some studies, we ask the extent to which processing of the second language grammar is like what is done during the processing of the native language grammar. In these studies, we emphasize the role of the similarity of the two languages, and have lately included instructional manipulations as well. We use training studies as well as studies of more proficient speakers (including speakersof English as a second language).We use “event-related brain potentials” (ERPs) to examine the patterns of brain activity that occur during second language processing, because our research suggests that ERPs more sensitively measure what people know than behavioral measures such as asking people to answer whether a sentence is grammatically correct or not. More information can be found at Dr. Tokowicz’s website: http://www.plumlab.pitt.edu/


Tessa Warren

Associate Professor, Department of Psychology

Senior Scientist, LRDC

My lab studies how people understand sentences in their native language. One of the ways we do this is by studying the ways that damage to different brain areas in people with aphasia affects both language understanding itself and the component processes that are required for it, like the ability to recognize written words or predict what word is likely to come next. By investigating these patterns of brain lesions and language abilities, we are learning more about both the brain systems that accomplish language understanding as well as the cognitive processes that go on during language understanding. More information can be found at Dr. Warren’s website: http://www.pitt.edu/~tessa/


Nora Presson

Nora Presson

Research Associate, LRDC

In collaboration with Dr. Walter Schneider and colleagues, my goal is to predict current and ongoing symptoms of a traumatic brain injury (TBI) from diffusion imaging of the white matter in the brain. White matter bundles, or tracts, connect gray matter brain areas and allow them to communicate. By modeling and measuring properties of major white matter tracts, we look for predictors of brain injury, such as low cognitive test scores, delayed recovery/return to play, high self-reported symptom burden, or even brain evidence of neurodegeneration (measured with PET imaging). We collect this information and create a new and innovative research report for clinicians. Once tract metrics and patient outcomes can be reliably linked, our goal will be to show how brain imaging data may be used in conjunction with neuropsychological testing for future diagnosis and treatment decisions to improve diagnostic accuracy. More information can be found: http://www.lrdc.pitt.edu/schneiderlab/


For further information, contact:
Elizabeth S. Rangel, Director of Communications
Learning Research & Development Center, University of Pittsburgh
lrangel@pitt.edu