Stephen Cowen

Stephen Cowen's picture
Real name: 
Assistant Professor, Cognition/Neural Systems
Director, Decision Making and Learning Laboratory


(520) 626-2615
Life Sciences North 347
Research Interests: 
  • Understanding how interacting groups of neurons represent the value of anticipated outcomes, planned actions, and physical space.
  • Determining the neural origins of age-associated memory loss and the role of sleep in the memory formation process.
  • Identifying neural mechanisms underlying Parkinson’s disease and the biomarkers that precede motor symptom onset.

The human brain is composed of billions of interacting neurons, and the activities of these neurons must be coordinated during decision making, motor control, and memory formation. How this coordination is achieved is a fundamental question in neuroscience. My laboratory seeks to determine how neurons regulate their coordinated activity during behavior and how this coordination is altered by neuromodulators such as dopamine. Understanding how neuronal coordination is regulated in the brain is important as the breakdown of coordination may underlie disorders such as Parkinson’s disease, epilepsy, schizophrenia, and aging.

I investigate neural coordination by measuring the activities of groups of individual neurons in animals (typically rats and mice) while the animals perform decision-making behaviors. My laboratory’s investigations of cost-benefit decision making has revealed that neurons in the anterior cingulate cortex, a region within the frontal cortex, regulates the capacity to persevere through physically strenuous behaviors so that a desired goal can be achieved. Results from my research also suggest that neurons in this region are also involved in “embodied cognition” in the sense that they coordinate body movements that facilitate memory storage.

Our ongoing experiments now extend beyond the anterior cingulate cortex and investigate how the frontal cortex, striatum, and hippocampus interact during waking behavior and during rest. Furthermore, through a collaboration with Dr. Michael Heien (Chemistry and Biochemistry, University of Arizona) our laboratory is developing novel technologies for the simultaneous measurement of interacting groups of neurons and dopamine release in awake and behaving animals. Through our collaboration with Dr. Torsten Falk (Neurology, University of Arizona), we are also investigating how novel treatments for Parkinson’s disease alter neuronal coordination and dopamine release. Finally, through our collaboration with Dr. Carol Barnes (Psychology, University of Arizona), we are investigating how aging alters neuronal coordination and memory consolidation during sleep.

Selected Publications: 

Cowen S.L., Nitz D.A. (2014) Repeating Firing Fields of CA1 Neurons Shift Forward in Response to Increasing Angular Velocity, Journal of Neuroscience, 34(1):232-41.

Miller M.A., Thomé A, Cowen S.L. (2013) Intersection of Effort and Risk: Ethological and Neurobiological Perspectives, Frontiers in Neuroscience, 7:208.

Cowen S.L., Davis G.A., Nitz D.A. (2012) Anterior cingulate neurons in the rat map anticipated effort and reward to their associated action sequences. Journal of Neurophysiology 107(9):2393–2407.

Cowen, S.L. and McNaughton, B.L (2007) Selective delay activity in the medial prefrontal cortex of the rat: The contribution of sensory-motor information and contingency. Journal of Neurophysiology, 98(1):303-16.

Maurer, A.P., Cowen, S.L., Burke, S.N., Barnes, C.A. and McNaughton, B.L. (2006) Phase precession in hippocampal interneurons showing strong functional coupling to individual pyramidal cells. The Journal of Neuroscience, 26:13485-13492.

Courses Taught: 

PSY 230: Measurement and Statistics
PSY 313: Drugs and the Brain
PSY 402: Mind, Brain, and Behavior
PSY 506a: Neural Systems, Neural Encoding, and Computation
NRSC 560: Systems Neuroscience (Section: memory and decision making)
PSY/NRSC 596e: The Neurobiology of Decision Making

Research Program: