Neuropsychology & Neuroscience Research

nancy chiavorlottiThe Neuropsychology and Neuroscience Laboratory (NNL) at Kessler Foundation conducts research to improve cognition in individuals with multiple sclerosis (MS) and traumatic brain injury (TBI). Common effects of MS and TBI are difficulties with thinking, learning, and memory. Executive functions, including performing tasks in a sequence and problem solving, are also compromised. Individuals may have an increased feeling of apathy, in which they don’t have a desire to start a task, even a simple task such as folding laundry. MS and TBI can also cause individuals to tire quickly when performing thinking tasks—known as cognitive fatigue.

TBI and MS cause people to continuously adapt to their current abilities. It's a lifestyle change, not only for themselves but for their families as well (view our TBI newsletter to read their stories and gather resources). One of the hardest things in life is not being able to recall a fond memory or forgetting what you just read. These situations result in less independence in activities of daily living and limit the likelihood of maintaining employment. 

image of a brain scanside image of brain scanThe NNL strives to discover ways to improve cognition, prevent decline, and limit fatigue. Through non-invasive techniques, including magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), functional MRI (fMRI), and neuropsychological (paper and pencil) tests, we measure treatment outcomes to determine how research participants are responding to the studied treatments. fMRI shows what parts of the brain are active when performing various thinking tasks. By highlighting active parts of the brain, researchers can identify changes in brain activity after treatment.

NNL research is readily applicable to improving someone’s quality of life. It comes back to keeping your mind active to improve cognition or prevent decline. NNL Director Nancy Chiaravalloti, PhD said, “Research is tremendously important to society as a whole. It is research that is responsible for advances, such as improved technology, as well as our knowledge of what keeps us healthy…Research is essential to living the kind of life we want to live.” View our active research studies for TBI and MS. Also, stay informed by visiting Kessler Foundation’s YouTube channel and Neuroscience Research and Traumatic Brain Injury Research Facebook pages.

Recent News & Research Discoveries for individuals with multiple sclerosis and traumatic brain injury:


  • The NNL will be incorporating virtual reality technology into its cognitive rehabilitation picture from Estabrook Lectureresearch protocols, thanks to a partnership between Kessler Foundation and the University of Southern California (USC) Institute for Creative Technologies. Participants will be tested in a virtual office environment, before and after treatment, to assess if they improve in every day work tasks—answering phones and emails, organizing files, and making wise business decisions (for more information, click on the image). This will demonstrate whether or not treatments are actually improving an individual’s ability to participate in activities of daily living. The goal, according to USC's Albert Rizzo, PhD of the Institute's Medical Virtual Reality research group, is to conduct research to develop the evidence base to support the future of home-based rehabilitation that is effective, convenient, and affordable.
  • Kessler Foundation scientists received a grant to test the cognitive reserve theory in individuals with traumatic brain injury. The theory has been well supported in MS through research completed in the NNL over the past few years.  Specifically, a mentally active lifestyle prevents cognitive decline in people with MS. Having a bank of knowledge—known Scientist staring at an mri imageas cognitive reserve—an enriching lifestyle, and continually learning new things forms more connections in the brain. Therefore, if one connection is damaged as a result of the disease, the others will compensate for the loss. Scientists found that individuals with MS can have more brain atrophy without cognitive decline, while those with less brain atrophy can have more deficits—all depending on their level of cognitive reserve. "Now we can advise [people] that staying in school, being active and using their bodies and brains will stave off cognitive decline," said John DeLuca, PhD co-author and senior vice president for research and training at Kessler Foundation. "These are important findings with global implications for the care of patients with MS."
  • Kessler Foundation Scientist Honored with Women of Excellence Award
  • Kessler Foundation Researchers Present at DC Conference on Race, Ethnicity and Disabilities


Active Research Areas

Current grant funding for the laboratory includes: multi-year grants (R01, R00) from the National Institutes of Health (NIH); National Institute on Disability and Rehabilitation Research (NIDRR); and the Department of Veterans Affairs; a Training Program Grant from the National Multiple Sclerosis Society; an Advanced Multidisciplinary Training Program Grant from the National Institute on Disability and Rehabilitation Research (NIDRR); pilot research grants from the Kessler Foundation, multi-year and pilot research grants from the National MS Society, as well as several multi-year and pilot research grants from the New Jersey Commission for Brain Injury Research.

  • Multiple Sclerosis -The Laboratory’s work in multiple sclerosis challenges the current view on the cause of memory impairment in MS. Much of our pioneering work provided the first evidence that memory impairment in individuals with MS may be due to a different mechanism (i.e., impaired acquisition of information) than previously hypothesized (i.e., retrieval failure). A major focus of work in our lab has been to identify and treat the impairments of learning and memory. Research has found that controllable variables, such as distracting stimuli or a lack of time for adequate information processing, impacts information acquisition in MS. Current work is focused on cognitive rehabilitation programs to treat problems of learning and memory in persons with MS.  NNL scientists are conducting groundbreaking research in this area, documenting changes in brain structure and function following a brief behavioral intervention for learning and memory in MS. This line of work has significant implications for the neurocognitive rehabilitation of persons with MS.  In addition to the above projects, the NNL is continuing its MS work in the areas of emotionality, personality, psychophysiology and everyday functioning.
  • Traumatic Brain Injury –NNL Scientists foster many areas of ongoing investigation  in the area of traumatic brain injury (TBI).  Cognitive functioning is often significantly impacted by TBI and multiple studies in the NNL address this area of need from both a behavioral perspective and neuroimaging perspective.  Work is ongoing to more specifically identify the cognitive problems seen post-TBI as well as to improve cognitive functioning in persons living with TBI through cognitive rehabilitation.  NNL scientists apply multiple neuroimaging techniques (i.e., fMRI, MRI, MRS, DTI) to examine brain abnormalities and cognitive functioning in TBI, done in collaboration with UMDNJ and Rutgers University. Research is also being conducted in the assessment and treatment of cognitive impairments in TBI and the functional application to rehabilitation.
  • Cognitive Neuropsychology- NNL Scientists are interested in investigating cognition in various populations. Understanding the impact of learning and memory impairments in individuals with neurological injuries or illnesses. Researchers are investigating how executive abilities or processing speed impact learning and memory as well as studying aging in persons with neurological illness or injuries. Rehabilitation techniques are being utilized to improve learning and memory as well as applying rehabilitation techniques to improve functional status. Additional research is focused on how psychological factors such as apathy, depression and cognitive fatigue effect cognition.
  • Functional Neuroimaging -Members of the Laboratory are currently active in several areas of investigation: clinical applications of fMRI, the use of parametric studies, the evaluation of cognitive functioning in clinical populations, and utilizing optical tomography using near-infrared spectroscopy. Our parametric studies seek to develop standardized fMRI acquisition paradigms specifically in the auditory and motor domains. Our studies of cognitive functions in clinical populations are investigating the neurofunctional correlates of information processing, working memory, learning, memory and executive abilities in MS and TBI.  This work is conducted in collaboration with Rutgers University in Newark. Key resources include the Kessler Foundation Research Center Neuropsychology and Neuroscience Laboratory which houses a neuroimaging laboratory consisting of 3 data analysis workstations, 2 for functional neuroimaging analysis and 1 for optical tomography analysis, and 3 neuroimaging dedicated laptops.  The lab also houses a fully functional near-infrared optical (NIRS) tomography system. NIRS is a functional neuroimaging system which allows for measuring functional cerebral activity in a noninvasive manner.