Understanding and improving executive dysfunction

Understanding and improving executive dysfunction

Dr. Rachel Navarra’s research on how traumatic brain injuries affect executive function could impact protocols and treatment for injured military personnel.

There’s a lot left to learn about what Dr. Rachel Navarra calls “executive function,” especially among individuals experiencing impairments. Navarra, assistant professor in the Department of Cell Biology and Neuroscience at Rowan-Virtua School of Osteopathic Medicine and Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences, is investigating these complex processes by utilizing rodent models. 

The aspects of executive function Navarra is investigating are cognitive flexibility and risk/reward decision-making. Cognitive flexibility, she explained, is the ability to shift your thinking and actions in new situations or changing environments. Human traumatic brain injury (TBI) survivors often have trouble flexibly adapting their behavior in scenarios like finding an alternate route when road closures affect their regular commute.

Rachel Navarra, Ph.D.

Behavioral neuroscientist

Areas of expertise:

Behavioral pharmacology, executive function, traumatic brain injury

More information

Brain injury survivors tend to exhibit more risky behavior, too. In clinical tests of human risk/reward decision-making, subjects engaging in gambling-like tasks choose between “safe” and “risky” options that result in winning or losing play money. If you have trouble learning that the risky approach yields the highest chance of losing overall—as TBI survivors often do—“you’re more likely to make risky choices that lead to loss or danger across the board,” Navarra explained.

Through the basic science research Navarra is performing in her lab, she hopes to inform clinical research and improve treatment strategies to address these executive dysfunctions. 

Navarra is the principal investigator of a project funded by the U.S. Department of Defense that focuses on the effects of traumatic brain injuries on cognitive and decision-making processes as they pertain to military personnel. 

“This work could immediately impact military guidelines for determining combat readiness and establishing return to active-duty timelines, as well as treatment options for injured military personnel,” Navarra said. 

Navarra is also funded by the N.J. Commission on Brain Injury Research and the Osteopathic Heritage Foundation Endowment for Primary Care Research, working on related TBI research topics.

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