Jessica Green

Breakthrough in brain function research

April 3, 2008

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Two SFU neuroscientists have made a major breakthrough in human brain-function research that opens the door to actually discovering brain activity as it is happening. If offers a promising new way to investigate disorders including autism, dementia, depression and anxiety.

John McDonald, associate professor and Canada Research Chair in cognitive neuroscience, and PhD student Jessica Green have successfully used electroencephalography (EEG) to pinpoint, in space and time, the neural activities involved in paying attention.

Until now, neuroscientists studying human brain function have used electroencephalography to show when brain activity occurs and functional neuro-imaging to indicate where it is occurring. But researchers have been unable determine both the time and the location of brain activity concurrently because these two detection methods measure different things — electrical activity and blood flow.

McDonald says he and Green’s results, which are summarized in the April issue of Public Library of Science Biology, were accomplished by analyzing EEG in a new way.
Using a signal-processing technique called beamforming, which was originally used for radar and sonar, the pair were able to show the timing and sequence of brain activity underlying our ability to attend to different visual objects in our environment.

“The ability to identify human brain activities in both space and time is an important achievement in cognitive neuroscience,” says McDonald, adding that he and Green have high hopes for future brain-function research using this new technique.

“The ability to examine both the locations of neural activity and the dynamics of communication between brain regions with a low-cost, non-invasive methodology like EEG is relevant to researchers in all areas of cognitive research,” says Green. “This technique could be used to investigate changes in memory that occur with normal aging compared to dementias or to examine changes in cognition that result from disorders like depression and anxiety.”
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