Study of Twins’ Brain Structure Wins Graduate Student Award

Why and how do people think differently from one another?

That’s a question that Elena Molokotos is studying, and her research has been recognized with a Cognitive Neuroscience Society Graduate Student Award.

Molokotos, a first-year student in Suffolk’s clinical psychology doctoral program, focused her award-winning research on how twins illuminate genetic influences on brain structure. She was one of 10 graduate students from around the world honored by the Cognitive Neuroscience Society and presented her findings in March at the organization’s annual conference in San Francisco.

“The take-home message is that the brain structures involved with executive functions, like planning and organization, may be more influenced by genes than other networks of the brain, which is somewhat different than we might expect,” said Molokotos,

Molokotos looked at three well-known brain networks: the default-mode network, which is associated with the things people think about when they don’t have a specific task; the central-executive network, active when people are engaged in more focused activities; and the salience network, thought to be part of the brain that monitors information an individual should pay attention to.

Her analysis showed that:

  • In all three networks, the brains of identical twins are more similar than brains of non-identical twins when measuring the surface area, rather than the thickness, of the cortex.
  • The central-executive network showed significantly more similarities in cortical thickness for identical twins versus non-identical twin pairs.

Once she had decided on the focus of her study, Molokotos, who describes herself as “a naturally curious person [who likes] the constantly evolving nature of theories and research methodologies,” studied the data and began examining the neuroimaging information and performing the statistical analyses.

When the Cognitive Neuroscience Society accepted her 500-word abstract application, she created a poster for display at the conference giving a detailed description of the analysis and its results, with brain images that helped explain the findings.

Molokotos credits her mentors – Suffolk Psychology Professor Matthew Jerram, and Amy Janes, a neuroscientist at the McLean Imaging Center at McLean Hospital, for their instruction and support as she formulates and pursues scientific questions.

“Without their guidance, input, and fostering of learning opportunities, this poster would not have happened,” she said. “Given that this was my first project at Suffolk and I am in the early stages of my career,” I am honored and excited to have been chosen from among many of my peers.”

Said Jerram: “Elena is an excellent student and has challenged herself to learn a lot of new things to complete this project. She moved outside of her comfort zone to understand a different type of data analysis and produced a very strong piece of research.”