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Feb. 24, 2011 Volume 32, No. 21

For researchers, Brain Imaging Center opens window on cognitive activity


Researchers can watch how memory works

One of the first studies published from the University of Missouri Brain Imaging Center may provide researchers with important clues to treating a variety of debilitating disorders.

In an effort to understand abstract working memory, Nelson Cowan, director of the center and Curators Professor of Psychological Sciences, used magnetic resonance imaging, or MRI, to produce graphics that depict the structure and function of the brain during various mental tasks. People use their abstract working memories to assign meaning when trying to recall facts. For example, when someone dials a phone number, abstract memory summons a mental image of the person being calling.

While previous studies identified an area of the brain that holds abstract working memory, it was assumed by some researchers to hold only visual information. Cowan found that this same part of the brain can hold auditory information as well. When people hear “Jingle Bells,” for instance, they relate it to the Christmas season and retain the meaning of the song temporarily.

Cowan said the research provides a better understanding of an area of the brain that may be affected in people with various learning disabilities, autism and schizophrenia.

“Recent research has shown that people with schizophrenia simply hold fewer items in their working memories, rather having an inability to disregard unimportant items, as previously thought,” he said. “Thus, discovering more about working memory will enable scientists to better target schizophrenia, among other disorders.”

Cowan’s research will be published in the Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience, and his related research on the childhood development of working memory has been funded by the National Institutes of Health since 1985. The study is one of many research projects that are currently underway at the Brain Imaging Center, which opened in 2009 to offer state-of-the-art technology to researchers in several fields.

The cornerstone of the center is MRI technology, which allows researchers to collect behavioral data through pictures of the brain. Magnetic pulses within the MRI machine measure blood flow to the subject’s brain and other types of chemical processes that indicate the structure and function of brain cells. Following the scan, the machine produces an image of the activity. With the images, researchers can observe how the brain functions and the effects of various mental activities.

Researchers at center have been using MRI to study various diseases and conditions. Shawn Christ, assistant professor of psychological sciences, is working on a study to understand the nature of cognitive processes in children with autism. John Kerns, associate professor of psychological sciences, is examining schizophrenic performance and how patients control their behavior.

“This center has allowed our department and the broader university research community to remain at the forefront of research on the diagnosis and study of the causes of neurocognitive disorders,” Christ said.

Cowan said psychiatry researchers are studying the effects of medications on the brain and researching addictive behaviors. Researchers from the Department of Nutrition and Exercise Physiology in the College of Human Environmental Sciences are studying the neurological effects of eating breakfast on obese people. That research team is also studying the effects of eating breakfast on working memory.

“The work being done points to the vast opportunities for the center and neuroscience research in the future,” Cowan said. “With this center, we’re hoping to make a major mark on the landscape of scientific research.”