"By looking at these brain signals in real time, as things occur, we may be able to extract the underlying grammar that occurs as one area [of the brain] talks to another," said Stephen Hanson, chair of the psychology department at Rutgers-Newark. "We are one of only a handful of groups of cognitive researchers probing into this area of brain dynamics by employing EEG and fMRI."
Scientists hope this research will likely lead to new approaches to cognitive malfunctions such as attention deficit disorder (ADD) and schizophrenia.
With support from a $500,000 McDonnell Foundation grant, Hanson is examining the dynamics of how different areas of the brain function cooperatively by monitoring the brain with both an electroencephalograph, also known as an EEG, and a functional magnetic resonance imaging machine, or fMRI.
Hanson uses an analogy to explain his research. "Imagine you are in a forest with trails and you have the option to take the marked trails or the unmarked trails," he said. "We are trying to find what trail the normal brain takes to get to a specific place and perform a specific function."
Hanson's research, which uses the high-powered fMRI machine jointly owned by Rutgers-Newark and UMDNJ, is trying to identify what areas of the brain are involved in both simple cognitive tasks such as the identification of a new object inserted into a series of similar objects, and more complex tasks such as decision-making and event perception.
"Most cognitive events occur in hundredths of a second," he observed. "We need to understand in real-time - not minutes or even seconds later, but instantly - what is going on and what are the common patterns of interaction that occur over and over in the brain when specific tasks are performed."
Many mental disorders, especially involving attention, seem to be characterized by a malfunction or breakdown in how the brain processes information sequentially. When normal brain dynamics are understood - from the brain's normal "grammar" to its systematic interactions - then a template for normal brain dynamics can be compared to the dynamics of a diseased or disordered brain.
Specifically, Hanson's research will help define the brain profiles of individuals with ADD and schizophrenia. The research also holds promise for a wide range of brain disorders, including bipolar illness as well as anxiety.
"Many people with a brain disorder may know that something is wrong with the way they think," he noted, "but just cannot put their finger on it. That's what we hope to find out with this research."
Co-principal investigators with Hanson include Catherine Hanson, research faculty, and Paul Kantor, professor of library and information studies, Rutgers-New Brunswick.