Twin sisters at SUNY Cortland compare brain activity

Senior twin sisters Alyssa (left) and Alexis (center) Cino prepare for an EEG test

Sisters Alexis and Alyssa Cino aren’t sure whether they are identical or fraternal twins.

The SUNY Cortland seniors, who both received degrees at Commencement on May 13, have plenty in common. They have the same taste in movies and share similar personalities. At a glance, it is hard to tell the two apart. Just ask their freshman-year roommate, who took months to learn how to spot the differences between the Cino sisters.

The twins, however, recently had an opportunity to apply science to see whether their similarities extend to the working of their brains.

Alyssa Cino, a psychology major and a social philosophy minor, has done significant research in the Psychology Department’s electroencephalography (EEG) lab. An EEG test uses a cap with electrodes placed on the scalp to measure electrical activity in the brain.

Alyssa Cino, along with fellow senior psychology major Christy Brewer, had researched what this activity can tell us about how individuals perceive others’ personalities. The pair presented “Electroencephalography During Behavioral Observation as a Predicator of Accuracy in Personality Judgement” at the Eastern Psychological Association’s annual meeting in Boston in March. Associate professors of psychology Leslie Eaton and Raymond Collings were the faculty advisors to the research.

Subjects in the study watched a video of two people talking and were asked to focus on one of them and respond to their personality. Brewer and Alyssa Cino hypothesized that the subjects’ attention, as measured by a ratio of theta and beta brain waves, is associated with accurate judgments of personality. Alyssa Cino presented the same research at SUNY Cortland’s annual “Transformations: A Student Research and Creativity Conference.”

With the semester winding down, Alyssa Cino decided to do a bit of personal research. She asked Alexis Cino, a criminology major and political science minor, to come in for an EEG test of her own and compare results.

On a recent afternoon, Alexis Cino came into the psychology EEG lab and sat down as her twin sister, Brewer, senior psychology major Stefania Buta and freshman conservation biology major Jeremy Collings prepared her for the test. They combed her hair, placed the EEG cap on her head and prepared each of the 64 electrodes. Alexis Cino then headed into a soundproof booth and responded via a keyboard to a series of images and prompts as her brain activity was recorded.

“I know she’s a researcher and she’s trying to use brain activity,” Alexis Cino said of her sister. “I’ve never actually been in this lab. I’ve been here when she’s been coding in other areas. I’ve met her research friends and Dr. Eaton and she spends so many hours here doing it. This was totally new to me and alien and robotic getting that strapped on me. It was still a little nerve-wracking because I want to be like her brain-wise.”

Twin EEG studies have shown that identical twins often share similar alpha wave patterns when awake and relaxed. Fraternal twins tend to show far less similarity.

The Cino sisters know that this exercise won’t prove whether they are identical or fraternal, but they remain enthusiastic about delving into the data nonetheless. Eaton and the twins planned to meet to discuss their findings on May 11.

"I'm very excited about it," Alyssa Cino said. "I'd like to compare our results. I think we judge things the same way, simple things like movies and people. It’ll be interesting to see our responses if they’re similar or not based on the pictures that are shown, the faces and the scenarios and comparing our brains during that specific moment.”

From Grand Island, N.Y., the Cino twins have followed in the footsteps of their parents, Thomas and Carrie Cino, in their career choices. Thomas Cino is a police officer, hence Alexis Cino’s interest in criminology. She is the president of SUNY Cortland’s criminology club, has interned with a defense attorney in Buffalo and plans on attending law school. Carrie Cino is a teacher in the Niagara Falls School District and Alyssa Cino is considering a career as a school psychologist.

“Recently I got a sudden interest in school psychology and school counseling,” Alyssa Cino said. “Over winter break I shadowed a couple of school counselors. I was in two different schools and I enjoyed it, so I’m going to try to explore options in that field.”

During their four years at SUNY Cortland, the Cino sisters experienced many cases of mistaken identity. Perfect strangers wave and say hello as they make their way across campus. “I think you’re looking for my sister” is a popular refrain for both of the twins.

The twins swear that they’ve rarely tried to deceive anyone. Besides a few pranks on boyfriends, the only tale of a switch the Cinos are willing to tell happened when Alyssa Cino was to accept her Girl Scout Gold Star award. Alyssa Cino had a work conflict that night, so she asked Alexis Cino whether she’d rather work her shift or pick up her Gold Star. Alexis Cino, of course, opted for the award ceremony. The local newspaper ran a photograph of Alexis Cino accepting her twin sisters’ award.

The Cino sisters laugh about that story now. They were, however, seriously looking forward to sharing a ceremony together at SUNY Cortland Commencement.

“I’ve always loved Cortland and I wouldn’t change my decision to come here for anything,” Alyssa Cino said. “Alexis and I have great memories. We had the same interest in everything so we were both equally excited about the school and it was at the top of our lists. When we were looking for schools, we were trying to find schools that had majors in both criminology and psychology. Cortland had both so we checked out the campus and we loved it.

“I’m doing research and she’s the president of the criminology club. We’ve been involved. We’ve done a couple of club sports like gymnastics, intramural broom ball and soccer. We’ve had our fair share of fun here. We’re definitely going to miss it. We’ve made a lot of friends and made the most of it.”

“This was everything to us,” Alexis Cino said. “It was the best decision. We loved all four years. When people say the cliché that it’s the best four years of your life, we really believe it. Our friendships, our memories. We grew up here. It was our first experience being an adult without supervision and learning how to handle life, the ups and the downs.”