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Aug. 30, 2012 Volume 34, No. 2

MU scientists explore the mysteries of the human brain


Research may lead to helping people with autism, Parkinson’s disease

Decreased independence is common to people who experience brain or bodily injuries that affect hand use. This includes 80 percent of amputees and stroke survivors who have impairments to their arms and hands, said Scott Frey, director of the Brain Imaging Center in the Melvin H. Marx Building.

Frey leads research using brain-imaging technology to understand how the mind controls movement, which he hopes will lead to improved rehabilitation. There is limited knowledge of how the brain controls hand movements and how it adapts to hand loss, he said. 

“Our goal is to learn about basic brain organization and how the loss of a limb or dysfunction changes that organization and someone’s behavior,” Frey said. “These include changes associated with increased use of the remaining hand.

“The reorganizational changes that take place in the brain following the loss of a limb may play a role in a variety of challenges faced by amputees,” he continued. A better understanding of these changes may help in the development of more effective rehabilitation strategies for amputees and others who have experienced injuries to the body, brain or spinal cord.”

His work is one of a number of ongoing studies at the Brain Imaging Center, a state-of-the-art neuroimaging research facility established in 2008. 

MU is one of the few academic institutions to have this technology available on campus and be accessible to departments and industries.

Before 2011, the center was not fully equipped for research, said Nelson Cowan, former director of the Brain Imaging Center and a Curators Professor in Psychological Sciences. But these days, research is its primary function.

Brain studies span fields from psychology and exercise science to nutrition and veterinary medicine. Most research involves functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), which examines brain structure and function, Cowan said. 

Cowan’s study of memory, published in 2011 in the Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience, was an important early work at the center. He used MRIs to show the brain’s function during different mental tasks involving working memory, the small amount of information an individual can remember at a time.

“It’s just one step in understanding working memory,” Cowan said.

The research could lead to learning how the brain functions in cognitive disability cases such as autism, schizophrenia and Parkinson’s disease. “We know working memory is deficient in a lot of disabilities,” he said. 

— Lauren Foreman

A handful of research projects are under way at the Brain Imaging Center. Among them:

• John Kerns, an MU psychological sciences associate professor, is evaluating college students before and after their 21st birthday to see if a difference occurs in brain function after the legal drinking age.

• Brick Johnstone, an MU professor of health psychology, is studying how experiences that people label religious or spiritual occur chemically in the brain.

• Jeff Johnson, an MU assistant professor of psychological sciences, is exploring episodic memory and how the brain stamps new memories and makes them permanent. 

• Colin Hesse, an MU assistant professor of communication, is researching alexithymia, which occurs when individuals are unable to understand and communicate emotions.