Jan. 7, 1998
SFU SCIENTISTS HEAD WORLD BRAIN PLASTICITY STUDY
When you bang your head on the cupboard door, what do you feel? A throbbing headache, disorientation, the overwhelming urge to swear?
Dr. Hal Weinberg wants to know. The SFU kinesiology professor has spent a good part of his career studying the brain's response to experiences like this one, and how the brain reorganizes its cognitive functions in the aftermath. His laboratory is currently heading a U.S. $600,000 international study on "brain plasticity" - how brain physiology changes as a result of experience. The multi-year investigation, funded by a grant from the prestigious Human Frontiers in the Sciences Foundation involves seven related projects in five different countries.
"The brain has a life of its own, with its own sense of self-organization," states Weinberg. "We know that its thought process is constantly being modified by sensory input, but we don't really understand how or why it responds to certain experiences - injuries, for example."
Along with his partner in the study, adjunct professor and principal investigator Doug Cheyne, Weinberg has assembled colleagues in Japan, France, Vienna, the U.S. and Canada. They began the study last spring in Paris, where they held their inaugural group meeting.
For his part, Weinberg will investigate how the brain responds when the visual field is reversed. He will also look at the brain's role in the regulation of movement.
"We're interested in how the brain responds, how it can be re-organized, especially in relation to visual perception and preparation for movements," says Weinberg. "We think this plasticity of the brain is related to the way the brain recovers from injury and, in fact, the way all normal learning occurs."
Other research groups will look at such things as how repetitive movements are affected when the brain is interrupted by outside stimuli, how the brain differentiates between complex-patterned movements and simple movements and the effect of Alzheimer's and other diseases on the brain's ability to plan and control movements.
In his SFU lab, Weinberg studies the brain's response to external stimuli with the help of a magnetoencephalograph (MEG), an apparatus that measures magnetic activity in the brain more effectively than the widely used electroencephalograph (EEG). By measuring magnetic impulses, rather than electrical impulses, researchers are able to get a clearer and more accurate picture of what is happening in the brain, according to Weinberg.
Weinberg hopes the brain plasticity project will contribute to the overall pool of knowledge on how the brain operates, eventually allowing researchers to predict how the brain will respond in a variety of situations. For example, a recent study by Weinberg uncovered a number of factors in the brain activity of pilots in long-distance flights that predicted the onset of fatigue before the pilots themselves were aware of it.
"Pilot fatigue is a major factor in these long flights," says Weinberg. "We were able to show the results of fatigue even before the pilots recognized it. If you can predict fatigue before it affects performance, you can take preventive measures to help pilots avoid making critical - even fatal - mistakes.
"With the brain plasticity study, we hope to add far more information of this nature to the pool of knowledge about the relationship of brain function to behavior."
CONTACT: Hal Weinberg, 291-3355
David Morton/Marianne Meadahl, media/pr, 291-4323
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