The strange case of Subject 7

George Mason graduate student John Fedota takes the kind of memory test that helped identify Subject 7 at Parasuraman"â„¢s lab.
Date:31 August 2009 Tags:

What is a cognitive superstar? One graduate student’s exceptional brain could help settle the debate of nature versus nurture.

Last year, Raja Parasuraman was conducting a study of brain function among 650 participants at George Mason University in Virginia, when he stumbled across what he calls a “cognitive superstar”. The university professor studies neuroergonomics – a merger of neuroscience, the study of the brain, with ergonomics, the study of how to design systems and technologies to be more compatible with users.

Parasuraman hooks subjects to MRI, EEG and other brain scanners while conducting memory and attention tests to see what parts of the brain activate. During one test, a 26-year-old grad student, identifi ed only as Subject 7, proved his astonishing ability to concentrate – acing hours of memory and cognition tests that humbled his competitors. “(Finding S7) has interested me in the issue of the genetic and training contributions to expertise,” Parasuraman says.

For example, some studies show that people who spend a lot of time playing video games can increase their attention capacity. S7 is not an avid gamer, so Parasuraman was pleased to find a genetic root for his abilities: S7’s DNA has a variation that correlates to short-term memory. The researcher is now conducting deeper studies into the biological influences on aptitude. “The Nature versus nurture debate has dissolved into a question of relative contributions,” he says. “We know they interact, but we can now identify the Nature part in more detail.”

Raja Parasuraman George Mason University

“Ninety per cent of neuroscience work has been done on animals. The techniques are all invasive and cannot be used on humans. But in the last 20 years, we’ve developed non-invasive techniques to study human brain functions.”

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