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Advanced Cognition in Animals: HPU Professor’s Research at GSO Science Center Highlighted

05.13.2014

HIGH POINT, N.C., May 13, 2014 – Research being conducted by Dr. Joanne Altman, High Point University’s director of Undergraduate Research and Creative Works and professor of psychology, at the Greensboro Science Center (GSC) was recently highlighted in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS).

An HPU student tests for advanced cognitive functions in a gibbon at the Greensboro Science Center.

An HPU student tests for advanced cognitive functions in a gibbon at the Greensboro Science Center.

Altman is leading a team of undergraduate students at HPU that has been testing for executive function, a highly developed cognitive task, in primates at the GSC. Executive function is used when performing tasks such as multi-tasking, strategizing and making mid-course corrections when thinking, and generally does not develop in humans until they are 23 to 25 years old.

Currently, there are no cognitive competencies that distinguish humans from non-humans. “Research has looked at tool use, language, self-awareness, problem solving and theory of mind, but we find examples for all of these behaviors in at least a few non-human species,” says Altman.

Two HPU biology majors, Jacqueline Simpson and Katie Long, assisted with the research at the Greensboro Science Center. During the summer of 2013, the team worked with a gibbon, a small ape. Simpson and Long also presented the literature behind the research during the second annual High Point University Research and Creativity Symposium on April 24.

This year, HPU biology major Rachel Thiets and biochemistry major Victoria Meadows will continue the research working with a more cooperative species – lemurs – under Altman’s guidance.

The research has recently become an interdisciplinary endeavor as well. Brian Heagney, HPU instructor of communication, is leading a team of game and interactive media design students to help Altman develop a digital presentation, similar to a video game, to present to the animals.

“It’s a wonderful example of what can happen when people from different disciplines get together and each bring their strengths to the table,” says Altman.

PNAS is one of the world’s most-cited scientific journals.

“It’s very humbling to have my research that’s underway highlighted in such a prestigious journal,” she continues. “We are indebted to the Greensboro Science Center for working with us on this project and allowing us to work with some of their animals.”

An extract of the article can be found here: http://www.pnas.org/content/111/13/4738.extract.

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