April 24, 2014


Contributed by Brenda Mackey
Graduate Assistant, Research Publications
Sponsored Programs Office, Ball State University

What do zombies and Stephanie Simon-Dack, assistant professor of psychological science, have in common?

“Neuroscientists almost always tend to be obsessed with zombies. And it’s because zombies love brains, we love brains,” she explained. “There’s an affinity.”

Simon-Dack can now explore her (and the zombies’) favorite thing more thoroughly thanks to an MRI grant from the National ScienceFoundation.

The grant allowed her to purchase Electroencephalography (EEG) equipment to record event-related potentials, which show highly accurate timing of brain response – exactly when the brain is doing what.

As displayed in the photo below, the EEG looks like something from a science fiction movie consisting of a cap with a series of electrodes that are attached to an amplifier. “When you append those electrodes to somebody’s scalp, on the top of the surface of their head, they record the electrical activity being generated from the surface of the cortex, from the brain,” Simon-Dack explained. “EEG uses these amplified recording mechanisms to pick up the synchronized power of all these cortical neurons firing together – if they’re all firing together, then that’s going to be a powerful enough signal that you’re going to be able to get it up outside of the scalp.”

Professor Stephanie Simon-Dack performs test using EEG equipment.
The researcher sets participants’ neurons to firing by giving them a task. One simple test shows pictures of frogs, asking participants to push a button when a blue frog appears. The EEG is programmed to put a 1 in the data readout every time a green frog is displayed and a 2 for each blue frog. “That becomes super powerful. So I’m not just getting a general processing idea. I can look at the recordings we were making of their brain activity and I can look across all of those green frog trials – what did their brain do that was the same every time they saw the green frog, and did that vary when they saw the blue frog?”” Simon-Dack said. “Now I’m getting what parts of the brain are processing that information. And not so much what parts, but when are they processing it?”

A big part of Simon-Dack’s research involves how individuals process time. To do this, she is examining how fast the two hemispheres of the brain communicate with each other. “Does that efficiency or inefficiency of transfer coordinate with how well or poorly we process time?” she pondered. “There’s some evidence it may be related to our ability to put together events in a linear fashion in time. Now I’m looking very small, within hundreds of milliseconds, but that eventually might lead to different types of time subjectivity.”

To test this, participants will perform a simple response time task that lets Simon-Dack probe how fast the brain is sending information back and forth based on where the target is and which hand they respond with.

When it comes to transmitting information between the right and left hemispheres, “how efficiently or inefficiently individuals transfer information influences a whole variety of spatial and intentional processing,” Simon-Dack explained. “It’s an unconscious activity. I’m not looking at anything at an upper level, like decision-making or anything crazy. I’m very interested before all that, before we hit the conscious brain – what are these very basic, automatic underlying processes doing to influence how we later consciously interact with the world?”

Simon-Dack hopes that her research will someday inform education and treatment for individuals with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). “There’s some evidence that individuals with ADHD have trouble with processing time, with how information entering into their brains gets sorted into the correct timing of when it happened,” she explained. “So if we can figure out what exactly is the disconnect, and how is it related to ADHD, that would become interesting for maybe giving people with ADHD some compensation techniques.”

Obviously, having an EEG is great for those who study brains. But is it useful for other researchers?

“I think it expands the context in which people can perform their research,” Simon-Dack said. “Most people aren’t into neuroscience like me. But it allows somebody like Mike Tagler [associate professor of psychological science], who’s on this grant, who looks at how context and how past information exposure influences decision making to actually add this element where they can look online at what the brain is doing while somebody is performing that decision, based on the context they’ve been given.

“It gives them a new tool, not just to examine behavior, but even if they’re not a neuro person they can actually now look at the underlying neuro mechanisms involved with a behavior and that might give them better information for informing their theories about it. And I think that anyone in the department could actually do a study with this equipment and learn something new about their area without it involving this huge shift from what they’re doing.”

Simon-Dack is excited to have this equipment at Ball State. “The idea of an MRI grant is you’re bringing equipment that a university otherwise wouldn’t have access to,” she said. “It’s going to benefit the whole university and potentially even outside the university, individuals who otherwise would not be able to perform this kind of research.”

Assistant Professor Stephanie Simon-Dack poses with EEG analysis equipment.

No comments:

Post a Comment