Donald Bolger

Associate Professor

Donald J. Bolger is an Associate Professor in the Department of Human Development and Quantitative Methodology. He received his Ph.D. in Cognitive Psychology from the University of Pittsburgh and was trained as a post-doctoral fellow in Neuroscience at Northwestern University. The main focus of Dr. Bolger’s research is studying how the brain learns to read and what are the cognitive and neural bases of reading and language ability and disability. The core of his research focus is on these key issues of reading from neurobiological, cognitive, developmental and educational perspectives. Dr. Bolger’s work combines innovative and complex methodologies including MRI, event-related potentials (ERP), magnetoencephalography (MEG), with behavioral and classroom based studies to understand development and learning.

  • BA University of Massachusetts Amherst
  • PhD University of Pittsburgh

Why do some individuals acquire the complex abilities of fluid reasoning or rule-based systems like language with great ease, while others struggle? The core of my research program has been to understand how learning occurs for both children and adults who are proficient at learning, and why others struggle and fail. Critical to understanding the success or failure at learning is unraveling how our biology interacts with the environmental input to create the conditions learning. To that end, my research focuses on both the cognitive and the neurobiological substrates of learning and learning difficulties, their developmental trajectories, and more recently, the role of genetic polymorphisms on learning and cognition. More succinctly, my research aims to determine a) how differences in achievement and disability are reflected in systematic changes in our biology and b) how experience and instruction alter the dynamics in the biology to produce plasticity and remediation of early difficulties. From school-based and cross-sectional paradigms to adult training tasks, my work combines innovative and complex methodologies in functional and structural magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) and event-related potentials (ERP) with developmental and behavioral research. My research pursuits are motivated by pragmatic issues with respect to basic learning, as well as the diagnosis and treatment of learning disorders and neuropathology.

        My primary focus has been on how the brain learns to read, the sources of reading failure, and the role of experience and instruction in learning to acquire reading and vocabulary. In the course of studying reading in English, questions arose regarding how different languages and the writing systems impact the way learning occurs and the underlying neurobiology. Thus, a branch of my research has investigated reading across different languages and writing systems such as Chinese and Korean which diverge from English in both the spoken and written forms. As my research on reading impairments advanced, I began to inquire about the roots of learning difficulties stemming from our ability to control attention and to maintain and monitor information, components known as Executive Functioning and Working Memory (WM). Given the fundamental role these abilities play in learning, if they could be enhanced, then such effects should transfer to skills such as reading, mathematics, and fluid reasoning. This inquiry seeded a major line of research over the past five years and has grown to include the acquisition of foreign languages. Lastly, as my lab grew to investigate disordered brain development, we engaged growing debate about how the differential wiring in the brains of individuals with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) produce failures in language comprehension particularly when it comes to emotional content. In sum, I have engaged in a variety of investigations that stem from a basic query about the fundamental nature of learning and learning impairment in the brain and how to improve the instruction or environmental context to ensure successful achievement.

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  • Alice Jackson
    Postdoctoral Fellow, Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratories
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Neuroscience and Cognitive Science
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