Great Minds: 8 Things We Know About the Brain

Amid growing national and international interest in this topic—President Barack Obama announced a major research initiative to map the brain in April—Spectrum spoke with several Lake Forest faculty and alumni to find out what they’ve learned about the brain through their own research and work.

The brain is our most complex organ. It weighs three pounds and contains 100 billion nerve cells that control almost every aspect of our bodies, including sleep, memory, emotion language, movement, and behavior. There are also more than 1,000 diseases and disorders of the brain, many of them incurable but possibly preventable—if only we knew more.  Despite several research advancements in recent years, many mysteries remain about how our brains work.

Epilepsy 

1—A PROMISING STUDY PROVIDES INSIGHTS ON HOW WE CAN HELP EPILEPTICS WHO DON’T RESPOND TO TREATMENT. 

About 50 million people worldwide suffer from epilepsy, a brain disorder that causes repeated seizures. Epileptic seizures occur from surges in electrical activity inside the brain that cause a range of reactions, from diminished awareness to convulsions to unconsciousness. While many epileptics are now able to control their symptoms thanks to advancements in medication and surgery techniques, about 20 percent suffer from intractable epilepsy, meaning they don’t respond to treatment at all. They continue to experience multiple seizures a day, resulting in a poor quality of life. 

But in many of these cases, patients have normal MRIs, making it difficult for doctors to pinpoint where the seizures occur. Mariam Aboain ’00 (known as Marina Petcherskaia at Lake Forest College) led a research study at the Mayo Clinic, where she earned her MD/PhD in biochemistry and molecular biology, to locate where seizures start in children with intractable epilepsy. 

With a team that included pediatric neurologists and a neurosurgeon, she used a brain imaging method called Subtraction Ictal Single-Photon Emission Computed Tomography Coregistered to Magnetic Resonance Imaging (SISCOM) to look at data from patients before and after brain surgery. From this information, Aboian and her team were able to show that surgically removing a SISCOM hyperperfusion abnormality—that is, the region where the seizure occurred—correlated with an end in seizures in patients with intractable epilepsy. 

“When regions of the brain that were positive on SISCOM were surgically resected, patients had less seizures,” she said. “These patients had severe epilepsy and many abnormalities on the MRI, which makes it difficult to identify a single epileptogenic focus.” 

With just six patients in the study, the results—published in the journal Pediatric Neurology—were encouraging but not large enough to change the way medicine is practiced. More studies conducted for longer periods of time are needed, Aboain said. 

Now a radiology resident at University of California—San Francisco, Aboain wants to find new ways to image the brain. She’s learning different methods and techniques in neuroimaging and is embarking on research to study what has changed in the brains of traumatic brain injury patients. Ultimately, her goal is to return to her epilepsy research. 

“My dream is to find a way to localize for people who have normal MRIs,” she said. “There’s a lot that is known about epilepsy and a lot of help being given. But there are still many patients with epilepsy who are suffering and need new advances to help.” 

Babies 

2—INFANTS BEGIN TO ANTICIPATE AND PLAN EARLIER THAN WE THOUGHT. 

How early in life do we begin to anticipate and plan? At three months old, it’s earlier than many people thought, according to research conducted by Naomi Wentworth, associate professor of psychology. 

By looking at infant eye movements, recording their brain waves, and comparing the results to older children and adults, she can see increased activity in the dorsal lateral prefrontal cortex—the part of the brain that anticipates, and allows us to have forethought and change our behavior at will. Since babies begin practicing where and how to look from birth, it’s not too long after that they develop short-term planning capabilities. 

“I try to look at that voluntary behavior early in life, as early as two months,” she said. “I find babies are remarkably adept at figuring out simple patterns. They’re motivated to anticipate and do things in preparation for what they think is going to happen.” 

With a primary interest in human development, Wentworth is involved in other research on voluntary behavior in infants. One study seeks to understand how babies view pictures that are shown in a sequence from side to side. While adults anticipate and look in the direction where the images will appear, babies wait to see that what they’re looking at disappears and then turn the other way. Although infants aren’t always consistent in this task, they exert more cognitive effort than adults do, she found. 

“Babies are actively involved in processing their world,” said Wentworth, who has published research in several books and journals, including Infancy, Developmental Psychology, and Child Development, and teaches classes in the College’s neuroscience major. 

With so much interest in trying to understand the mind of the baby, there has been and continues to be a lot of research on this topic. For example, renowned developmental psychologist Jean Piaget, who pioneered studies with children to better understand their cognitive development, believed that babies didn’t understand that things existed outside of what they could see until they turned about 8-months-old. Nearly a century later, Wentworth’s research suggests something different. 

“Their mind isn’t totally focused on what’s right in front of them,” she said. “My research shows that infants are able to anticipate much earlier than people thought they could.” 

Education 

3—THE MORE EDUCATED YOU ARE, THE BETTER YOU WILL PERCEIVE THINGS. 

Say you are out for a stroll and walk past a tree. Most of us will hardly notice that tree let alone identify it as a maple, oak, or some other type. “When you see that tree, you don’t get too specific or too general,” said Rui Zhu, associate professor of philosophy. “That’s how we talk, see things, and don’t see things.” 

The way most of us perceive that tree—not too specifically or not too generally— illustrates the shaping of what’s called the middle category. Zhu has found in his research that many of us fall into this category when we perceive things, although that’s not necessarily a good thing. “If you’re a poet, a writer, or an interesting person, you’ll stay away from this category. It’s a category for the average,” Zhu said. “That’s what education is about. It’s a steering away from middle category traps.” 

How our perception filters information is the basis of Zhu’s research, which focuses on psycholinguistics, or how language influences thought and mind. Specifically, he uses empirical research to look at how language shapes the way people think about the world.

The good news is the results of his research can apply to most anyone. By recognizing when we fall into the middle category, we can improve our observation and writing skills, and learn how to be more aware of cognitive traps. “The next time you look at a tree, you’ll be more observant,” he said. 

While his research focuses on the mind, Zhu also teaches a course called “Philosophy of the Mind,” that provides a theoretical understanding of how the mind is related to the body. Cross-listed with philosophy and the interdisciplinary neuroscience major, the class studies great thinkers from ancient to modern times, including philosopher Rene Descartes’s concept of dualism, which separates the mind and body; biologist Charles Darwin’s evolutionary theory, which introduces physicalism or the idea that the mind and body are one; and neuroscientist Antonio Damasio, who says the brain plays an intermediary role between the mind and body.

“In recent decades because of progress in neuroscience, people began to understand the mind-body relationship better,” Zhu said. “The brain isn’t another organ in the body. It has a unique place.” 

Healing 

4—RESEARCH SHOWS NEW TREATMENTS THAT COULD SPEED UP RECOVERY FROM NEUROMUSCULAR INJURIES. 

Nijee Sharma Luthra ’04 is well aware of how devastating some injuries can be on the body, particularly those that lead to a loss in mobility and sensation in limbs. As a neurology resident at University of California – Davis, she sees patients with neuromuscular diseases and injuries on a regular basis. “All of our vital organs are controlled by the brain, so any injury, whether a stroke, trauma, or genetic disorder, can alter your whole body function,” she said. “It can take years for our nerves to recover.” 

Nijee Sharma Luthra ’04

“Each little part of the brain has its own role. It’s like a little body sitting inside our big body.”

Interested in speeding up this recovery time, Luthra embarked on research in her MD/ PhD program at Loyola University Chicago to test different treatments to regenerate nerves after an injury. With a focus on the peripheral nervous system—the pathway that leads from the spinal cord to every muscle in the body—she conducted several experiments in rat models and found that the combined use of electrical stimulation and steroids such as estrogen and testosterone was most effective in helping to regenerate nerves. The speed of recovery was increased by at least two fold in treated animals and even more when the electrical stimulation and steroids treatments were given at the same time.

“This provides promising hope for the use of these treatments in humans after they have suffered from nerve injuries and the potential to use these treatments in the central nervous system, where they may also play a neuroprotective and neuroregenerative roles,” she said. 

After she completes her residency, Luthra plans to build on these promising results by starting a neurology practice and lab, where she will treat patients and also continue her research. Specifically she wants to focus on the central nervous system, which runs from the spinal cord to the brain and understand how to regenerate brain cells that die.

Luthra was drawn to the field as a student in Professor of Biology Shubhik DebBurman’s neuroscience class where she designed experiments and became fascinated by how much remains unknown about the brain. 

“Each little part of the brain has its own role,” she said. “A one-centimeter area can control language, another centimeter can control movement in right hand, your sleep cycle, or your ability to express emotions. It’s like a little body sitting inside our big body.” 

Her experience at Lake Forest sparked her interest in entering a relatively new field that has seen rapid developments in the past decade but is a daunting specialty for many medical students because of the amount necessary to learn. “It’s like trying to solve a puzzle,” she said. “You see deficits in your patients and you have to find out what’s causing it. You have to be like a detective.”

Memory

5—YOU’RE MORE LIKELY TO REMEMBER A SONG LYRIC IF IT IS AT THE BEGINNING OR END OF THE TUNE. 

You know that frustrating feeling of trying to remember a song lyric that is on the tip of your tongue, and you can’t come up with it? 

New research from Matthew Kelley, associate professor of psychology, found you’d be more likely to remember that lyric if it was at the beginning or end of the song. That’s because our memories are usually sharper when there is something distinctive about what we are trying to remember—a concept called the relative distinctiveness principle. 

“People tend to use the relative time of presentation as the memory cue, which makes beginning and ending information more distinctive than other information,” Kelley said. 

Kelley’s research marks the first time the relative distinctiveness principle has been determined as a characteristic of semantic memory—the memory system that is responsible for recalling general, factual knowledge like song lyrics, book titles, and movies. The principle has long been a hallmark of episodic memory, which is how we remember the events and episodes from our lives. He recently published these results in the May 2013 issue of Memory & Cognition. 

With a focus on the cognitive and behavioral side of memory, Kelley has also explored memory’s counterintuitive effects in his research. For example, he found that hints often impair memory and people remember less when they collaborate with a partner than if two people recall separately and combine their memories. Such findings have led to additional research on how to counteract these effects and new ways of teaching and learning. 

While his research is designed to test cognitive theories that focus on discovering the processes involved in memory, such as the relative distinctiveness principle, there is another side to memory that we know little about—the neural and molecular mechanisms that underlie memory. 

“The biggest mystery is how the actions of molecules and the firing of neurons translate into the experience of remembering,” he said. “Or, from the opposite perspective, how does the thought of ‘remember my 16th birthday?’ suddenly activate a variety of brain systems, neurons, and neurotransmitters to produce conscious, reasonably accurate, experience of the past?” 

Kelley does not explore this question in his research, but he continues to work toward uncovering other mysteries of memory. “Although we did not directly test brain activity, it appears that similar cognitive processes are involved in a variety of tasks, which is a nice step forward,” he said. 

Disease 

6—FACULTY-STUDENT RESEARCH EXAMINES THE CAUSES OF PARKINSON’S DISEASE AND HOW WE CAN STOP OR REVERSE THE PROCESS. 

When a particular protein in our brains becomes misshapen by killing nerve cells, this impairs movement and leads to the onset of Parkinson’s disease, an incurable neurodegenerative brain disorder that affects about one million people in the United States and four to six million worldwide. 

Professor of Biology Shubhik DebBurman’s research focuses on the question: Why does this misshapen protein, called alpha-synuclein, kill nerve cells that die in Parkinson’s disease and how can we stop or reverse this process? For the pioneering use of multiple yeasts, a simple model organism that is easier to manipulate and yields faster results than more commonly used rats or fruit flies, DebBurman and his students have received funding from the National Institutes of Health, the National Science Foundation, and other national agencies. They have made many discoveries about how and why these proteins behave the way they do. 

They have identified many of the amino acids in the alpha-synuclein protein that controls how toxic it becomes to cells and examined the mechanisms in our cells that recycle proteins. “We’ve shown that the mechanisms by which alpha-synuclein degrade and protect themselves against oxidation are critical,” DebBurman said. “If those are compromised, the misshapen proteins cause more damage to the cells.” 

By design, DebBurman involves many students in this research with the goal of producing well-trained members of the future scientific workforce and individuals who can understand science. He has published several papers on this research with undergraduates in journals like Journal of Molecular Neuroscience, ISRN Neurology, and Parkinson’s Disease, and many of his students have presented at national conferences and gone on to attend medical school or enter PhD programs in the biological sciences. 

“The power of doing undergraduate research is that it empowers and often inspires students to follow a research career. It gives hands-on scientific training that lasts a lifetime,” he said. 

As his lab continues to explore the reasons why misshapen proteins kill nerve cells, several advancements in the past 15 years have contributed to our understanding of Parkinson’s disease. Scientists have identified the genes that cause the disease and discovered that stem cells can make neurons, which will lead to the development of new treatments. 

“The challenge in the future is designing drugs that are specific to improving symptoms without causing side effects to the rest of your body,” DebBurman said. “If you use stem cells, will they efficiently replace dying neurons and restore the proper connections that were lost? If that’s solved, we have hope for a cure.” 

Drug Abuse 

7—ADOLESCENT DRUG EXPOSURE HAS LASTING DETRIMENTAL EFFECTS ON MEMORY, ATTENTION, AND OTHER EXECUTIVE FUNCTIONS. 

We’ve long known that drugs impair our ability to function in different ways. Specifically, drugs affect an area in our brain called the prefrontal cortex, which governs our decision making, planning, impulse control, attention, memory, and other “executive function” tasks. This region of the brain is one of the last to mature, and it is still developing during the teenage years. 

Studies show that when drug abuse begins in adolescence, which is most of the time, there is a greater likelihood of relapse. So what happens to the brain of an adolescent who takes drugs? What is it about this period that makes people more susceptible to drug abuse? 

Emily Venheim Hankosky ’09, a PhD student in behavioral neuroscience at University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, is part of one of the first research labs to examine these questions. “We’re trying to understand long-lasting drug exposure on the developing brain,” she said. “In the past few years, it’s been a growing area of research but for a long time, the age of the animal was largely ignored.” 

Her experiments involved giving amphetamines to adolescent and adult rodents and comparing their cognitive abilities. While all the animals showed impairments from the drugs, these deficits were observed following a withdrawal period that was about eight weeks longer in adolescents than in adults. 

“Eventually, we hope to understand the changes are occurring in the brain,” said Hankosky, who has published some of her results in Developmental Psychobiology. “If we can isolate those, perhaps we can find better therapeutic treatments, although we’re a few steps removed from that.” 

A psychology major at Lake Forest College, Hankosky became interested in adolescent work through a research opportunity at Rosalind Franklin University of Medicine and Science and an internship in a neuroscience lab at Rush University. With encouragement from Associate Professor of Psychology Matthew Kelley, she wrote her thesis on how stress affects anxiety in this age group and decided to pursue a PhD in behavioral neuroscience, which is the intersection of behavior and the brain. 

“I’ve always loved psychology,” she said. “I remember reading a chapter on biological psychology and thinking I want to understand this more. This is what I want to do.”

Neuroscience at Lake Forest College 

8—OUR NEUROSCIENCE PROGRAM IS PREPARING THE NEXT GENERATION OF BRAIN RESEARCHERS AND HEALTH PROFESSIONALS. 

Neuroscience, or the study of the nervous system, is one of the fastest growing areas in science and its study will help us better understand the brain. Lake Forest College introduced the neuroscience major in 2009 as an interdisciplinary degree that draws students from biology, psychology, philosophy, art, music, history, and others, and has seen steady growth ever since—this year, 18 first-year students declared neuroscience as a major, the highest number yet. 

Shubhik DebBurman, professor of biology

“Neuroscience attracts students who want a wide-ranging education and the ability to make connections between different fields. It’s a broad interdisciplinary approach to understanding mind, body, and behavior.”

“This area is fascinating to students and faculty because our brain controls all of our behavior and who we are, and how, when things go wrong in our brain, we lose elements of who we are,” said Shubhik DebBurman, professor of biology and chair of the neuroscience program. “We are curious about how we work.” 

With a practical focus on preparing students for careers in the sciences, health professions, and other fields, the program provides early research opportunities for students at Lake Forest, Rosalind Franklin University of Medicine and Science, and other local medical schools, which helps spark a sustained interest in research and provides compelling experience for students who apply to jobs, medical school, or other graduate programs. 

As a result of these opportunities, most neuroscience students conduct at least one summer of research, and many have co-authored journal articles, won research prizes, presented at national conferences, and gained admission to graduate school. One recent neuroscience graduate, Natalie Kukulka ’13, was among a select group who received a 2013 Parkinson’s Disease Foundation summer research grant that included applications from PhD, medical, and other undergraduate students. Sydni Cole ’12 was recently accepted as an MD/ PhD candidate in the Medical Scientist Training Program at Northwestern Feinberg School of Medicine. 

Through diverse career developmental internships, the program also introduces students to emerging areas in the field, including efforts to map the connections in the brain; increasing our understanding of how neurons connect to create behavior; new technologies, like mathematical modeling; the rise of bioinfomatics; and how genes and proteins work together in different neurons to give them unique functions. 

“Neuroscience attracts students who want a wide-ranging education and the ability to make connections between different fields,” DebBurman said. “It’s a broad interdisciplinary approach to understanding mind, body, and behavior.”


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