Social and economic factors can influence our health, achievement, and cognitive ability for a lifetime.

The question is, how could it have such far-reaching effects?

The answer lies in the relationship between childhood social economic status and the developing brain, according to Martha Farah, a scientist at the University of Pennsylvania, whose studies are widely recognized for being “classics in the field” of cognitive neuroscience.

Farah will discuss “Socioeconomic Status and Brain Development: From Science to Policy” on Thursday, Jan. 24, at the Fralin Biomedical Research Institute at VTC. The presentation is a feature of the institute’s Maury Strauss Distinguished Public Lecture Series.

“Socioeconomic status is not just about money,” Farah said at a recent lecture at Stanford University. “It includes educational attainment, occupational prestige, and it powerfully predicts just about every life outcome you would care about — physical health, mental health, cognitive ability, emotional well-being – I could list more and more. All of these outcomes are related through the brain.”

Farah will present research from her lab and others aimed at characterizing socioeconomic status with differences in brain structure and function. 

Farah has worked on a range of subjects in addition to the effects of socioeconomic status on brain development, such as semantic memory, mental imagery, vision, reading, face recognition and attention.

“Dr. Farah is one of the leading innovators and voices for applying the discoveries of developmental cognitive neuroscience to real world policy implementation so that it can have meaningful impact the on the lives of individuals and society,” said Michael Friedlander, executive director of the Fralin Biomedical Research Institute and the vice president for health sciences and technology at Virginia Tech. “The interface of disciplines such as cognitive neuroscience, developmental neurobiology, computation, and economics represents one of the most exciting and promising confluences of modern science that connect the laboratory, theory, and policy. Dr. Farah is identifying and providing insights into some of the most critical nexuses and interactions between these areas.” 

Farah has also studied the expanding use of neuropsychiatric medications by healthy people for brain enhancement and novel uses of brain imaging, in legal, diagnostic and educational contexts —akin to neuroethics work done by researchers at the Fralin Biomedical Research Institute’s Computational Psychiatry Unit.

Farah was born and grew up in New York City. She received her doctoral degree in experimental psychology from Harvard University and continued postdoctoral studies at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Boston University School of Medicine. She previously was a faculty member at Carnegie Mellon University and is currently with the University of Pennsylvania, where she is currently the Walter H. Annenberg Professor of Natural Sciences.

In 1999, she founded Penn’s Center for Cognitive Neuroscience, and a decade later she founded the Center for Neuroscience & Society, which she still directs. 

She is a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, a former John Simon Guggenheim Fellow, and a recipient of several major national honors including the National Academy of Science’s Troland Research Award and the Association for Psychological Science’s lifetime achievement award.

In her citation for a lifetime achievement award, the Association for Psychological Science stated, “Her studies on the topics of mental imagery, face recognition, semantic memory, reading, attention, and executive functioning have become classics in the field.”

She is an elected fellow of the Hastings Center for Bioethics, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the Association for Psychological Science, the Society of Experimental Psychologists, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and the Cognitive Science Society.

The lecture begins at 5:30 p.m. Thursday and is free and open to the public. A reception with refreshments will precede the talk at 5 p.m. The Fralin Biomedical Research Institute is located at 2 Riverside Circle, Roanoke, Virginia.

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