Cory Potts, PhD joined the Cognition and Action Laboratory and the Neuroplasticity and Motor Behavior Laboratory at Moss Rehabilitation Research Institute (MRRI) in August of 2020. In this interview, he tells us more about his exciting research, his career, and his life outside the lab.
1) Can you tell us more about your academic background and training?
I began to consider pursuing an academic career during my junior year at Penn State while taking a class in cognitive psychology with Dr. David Rosenbaum. Dr. Rosenbaum directed a research lab investigating cognition and action, where I was invited to work as a research assistant and later as lab manager. My experiences during this time deepened my interest in psychological research and led me toward the decision to pursue my PhD in psychology from Penn State under the mentorship of Drs. David Rosenbaum and Rich Carlson. In my research, I have continued to examine interactions between cognition and action, focusing on how we plan and think about our movements.
2) What attracted you to science and the field of neurorehabilitation?
For as long as I can remember, I’ve been full of creative energy and have needed an outlet of some kind—for example, I’ve been an avid guitar player since I was twelve. Science is a deeply creative endeavor, and it has provided me with a creative outlet in my professional life. It can be profoundly invigorating to dream up new experiments or questions that might have never been asked before! But I also began studying psychology because I wanted to help people, and that desire has remained. The field of neurorehabilitation allows me to apply what I’ve learned about movement in neurotypical individuals to better understand, and ultimately improve, problems in movement occurring after stroke.
3) Why did you choose to work at MRRI?
MRRI has been on my radar since early in graduate school, as many former members of Dr. Rosenbaum’s lab have worked there. Because of this, I knew that MRRI was a top-tier research institute where I would be able to apply the principles I was learning in graduate school to individuals with disordered movement using cutting-edge techniques and technologies.
4) What are some of the research questions you are currently working to address?
I’m currently involved in a multi-component project examining “learned non-use” of the more affected arm in individuals with stroke, a puzzling and little-studied condition. Learned non-use refers to the disparity between the capacity and use of the more affected, weaker arm. In other words, the individual can effectively use the weaker arm to perform a task but chooses not to, instead defaulting to the use of the less affected, stronger arm. Learned non-use remains a challenge in stroke rehabilitation and prevents people with stroke from accomplishing activities of daily living, which are typically completed through the coordinated use of both arms. The broad aim of these projects is to better understand why this condition occurs and the variables that influence it. In one experiment, we’re using a virtual reality-based reaching task to examine whether non-use is affected by attentional demands, for example, by asking participants to simultaneously complete a secondary
task. For my independent project, I have developed a task to investigate the variables that shape the decision to use one or both arms to complete tasks in individuals with stroke.
5) What have been some of the key findings of your research thus far?
While this research is ongoing, the results suggest that arm non-use is worsened, meaning that the weaker arm is used less often, during more attention-demanding task conditions. We have also found that patients with stroke may differ from neurotypical individuals in the efficiency of their reaching movements, reaching far into the opposite-side workspace with the less affected arm. For the task examining use of one or both arms, we have found preliminary evidence suggesting that the spatial arrangement of objects is an important factor in decisions about whether to use one or both arms. Each of these projects contributes novel insight into changes in arm use following stroke.
6) Can you tell us more about the impact or potential impact of your research?
This project adds a brand-new piece to our understanding of why non-use occurs after stroke. We all know from daily life that our attention is limited. That is why, for example, it can be difficult to hold a conversation while watching television. Our results suggest that these attentional limitations contribute to non-use of the more affected arm. Thus, it is possible that developing methods to reduce attentional demands during rehabilitation, or to equate the attentional demands of either arm, could be doors for new rehabilitative strategies.
7) What is one of the biggest challenges you face in your work?
I began my post-doctoral position during the COVID-19 pandemic, which has made it difficult to conduct in-person research. However, we have since adapted, and we have developed methods to continue to make progress with our work while keeping our participants safe.
8) What do you see as the next step in your career, and are there experiences or skills from your fellowship at MRRI that you think will be particularly useful going forward?
For my next position, I would like to work in a setting with a balance between teaching and research, ideally continuing to work with patients with stroke. I have learned a variety of new techniques in my fellowship at MRRI, such as motion tracking, that will remain at the core of my research program. However, I’m most excited about sharing the knowledge and experiences I’ve gained through this fellowship with my students in future classes, as I think they will find these topics interesting and engaging.
9) What is one of your favorite MRRI memories so far?
We had a socially distanced kayaking trip at the start of my post-doc that was a lot of fun and really helped me to get to know my colleagues! I’ve been kayaking since I was young, and I also worked as a whitewater rafting guide for many years, so that trip was right up my alley.
10) What are some of the things you like to do in your free time?
I like to spend my free time hiking, playing guitar, reading, kayaking, and hanging out with my partner, Felicity, and my dog, Willow, who is full of energy and keeps me busy!