October 12th, 2011 18:12 EST
Students Study Brain Activity at Polytechnic Faculty
"I love the brain!" says Dr. Aryn Bush.
Her passion led her to help develop the University of South Florida Polytechnic`s new Applied Neuroscience and Cognitive Electrophysiology Lab in Winter Haven. "If I could be here 24 hours a day, seven days a week I would," she says. "Not many people can say that about their jobs, but I feel empowered to have an impact."
The interdisciplinary lab focuses on examining neural processes in healthy individuals and those with cognitive impairment. The lab has a unique focus on neuropsychological/electrophysiological research and its potential clinical applications.
Bush, an assistant professor of psychology, and Dr. Richard Marshall, an associate professor of education, serve as the lab`s co-directors. "One of the primary reasons we wanted to have lab space was so our students could gain valuable research experience," says Bush. "Those who want to engage in cognitive neuroscience and electrophysiology research need a lab in which to do that."
The lab has formed research partnerships with Watson Clinic and the Alzheimer`s Association. The first set of projects targets aspects of early-stage Alzheimer`s disease. The second set examines cognitive impairment due to cancer and cancer treatment. "We hope to better understand cancer-related cognitive impairment and then develop interventions to help," says Bush. "We offer intense and rigorous computer-based cognitive training for cancer patients with cognitive impairment. People are surviving cancer but their lives are changed drastically because of some of the cognitive changes they experience."
Both projects aim to better understand cognitive impairment secondary to Alzheimer`s disease and cancer treatment so that targets for potential intervention may be identified. "Everything I am working on now centers on those two things," says Bush. "What typically happens in research I`ve been involved with is you go in, you collect the data, and then you send the research participant on his or her way. "Instead, we want to translate the research in ways that can positively affect cognition and quality of life. We want to close the circle, so we`re conducting research on interventions that can help people in these situations while simultaneously informing us about the condition. "For me, that`s one of the most rewarding things about the work we do at the lab. In my previous research, the utility of the work was not immediately obvious to patients. The lab has enabled us to take on projects that not only inform the academic community, but that have community impact, as well.
"The difference here is that we have the potential to do clinical work along with community engagement. That and the interdisciplinary aspect set us apart. The boundaries are blurrier here, which I think is awesome. It`s a research laboratory that isn`t afraid to cross boundaries. "
According to Marshall, the lab`s sophisticated equipment plays a key role in its success.
"Most psychologists study behavior and then make assumptions about underlying brain function," he says. "We are using this technology to study brain function directly rather than making assumptions based on behavioral responses. By carefully measuring underlying brain activity, we assess brain function directly." The most practical way for USF Poly to enter the field of brain imaging was to begin by studying the brain`s electrical activity. Other forms of neuroimaging, such as magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) and positron emission tomography (PET), require highly trained staff and require well over a million dollars in equipment and facilities costs to set up and maintain. "In addition to allowing us to enter the field of neuroimaging, electrophysiology allows us to study the brain in real time," Marshall says. "Even with functional MRI, one measures blood flow just after an activity has occurred, because fMRI is measuring oxygen exchange in the blood. So you take a picture of where the blood went, and you assume the blood goes to the activity, but you don`t actually study the real event. "Electrophysiology lets you study the electrical activity of the brain as it actually happens. We can learn what the brain is doing at a specific moment." Marshall shares Bush`s excitement about the new facility.
"This is exciting stuff," he says. "It`s unbelievable to have our own lab. We have the latest generation of equipment, which provides practical information for children and adults. Our students really benefit from this opportunity. In addition to being able to study the brain directly, the lab provides students with `hands on` experience. After a few weeks in the lab, you see their confidence grow; they begin to teach others and they begin to ask questions at a whole new level. That is an exciting transformation." Student Mary Kittrell agrees.
"Having the honor of interviewing the most recent participators in the Living Healthy with Chronic Conditions program has been a positively memorable experience," she says. "I took notes while my fellow lab assistant vocalized the interview. While remaining professional, I really was touched by what each person had to say."
Kittrell believes applied learning is crucial to education and to life.
"One can only use `book smarts` to a certain limit," she says. "Application of knowledge is the `proof of the pudding.` I feel more prepared for where my career will take me each time I take part in experiences such as this."
According to Marshall, he and Bush complement each other as co-directors of the lab.
"The beauty of having Dr. Bush here is that I work mainly with children and she studies middle-aged and older adults, so the lab allows a lifespan perspective. We do similar research but with different populations.
"With children, I want to use technology to study the cognitive functions-mainly attention and memory-they need to perform in school. Additionally, I hope to study developmental psychopathology in children, especially severe mood and behavior disorders like bipolar disorder and oppositional defiant disorder. At present, we are working on a protocol to analyze rapid word recognition and word retrieval in students with dyslexia.
"I anticipate that as more studies develop, more students will sign up to participate. We want to teach them how to use the technology, because for those students who are interested in going on to graduate school, this would be valuable research experience.
Student Kayla Hobbs says, "I absolutely love the lab experience. It has helped me in so many ways with school, life and my career goal of being a social worker at a Veterans Affairs clinic. "
Hobbs also cites the value of applied learning. "To me, working with people in the lab is an extension of the classes I take. I actually see what a person with dementia goes through as opposed to just hearing about it in class. I have seen the connections between the words in the textbook and the things I am learning in the lab. This has also helped me in life, because I can see how I am progressing in a professional environment, which is something that I have always worried would be hard for me to do. Without this experience I would still be in class and wondering how certain things work. Instead I see firsthand how they work."
According to Bush, this emphasis on applied learning aligns with the polytechnic vision.
"On so many levels at the lab we are focusing on values like applied learning and interdisciplinary research. I work more with people from outside of my discipline than in it. I`m working with faculty in gerontology, medicine, and nutrition, and with people in the community. For me there are no silos. "It just makes sense. You have interdisciplinary education, collaborative opportunities, a focus on undergraduate research, and community engagement. When you believe in the polytechnic model it`s amazing what can happen. The energy and enthusiasm, the generation of ideas, thinking outside the box, doing things that you thought you would never ever be able to do - I`m watching that happen. So there`s the wow.
"The polytechnic mission sets the stage for positive energy and successful innovation because you`re not by yourself in your narrow line of research. Collaborating with colleagues from other disciplines has broadened my horizons. Challenging beliefs and moving forward is important to what we say we are.
"For me, every day is a new adventure. The opportunities are limitless."
USFP`s Applied Neuroscience & Cognitive Electrophysiology Lab is located at 199 Ave. B NW, Suite 205, in Winter Haven. For more information contact Aryn Bush at firstname.lastname@example.org or Richard Marshall at email@example.com.
Photo attached: Dr. Aryn Bush, left, and Dr. Richard Marshall place the 128-channel Neuroscan Quick-Cap (an electrode positioning system) on research assistant Kayla Hobbs prior to collecting EEG data. The Quick-Cap monitors neural activity while the participant engages in a variety of cognitive tasks. (Photo by Tom Hagerty, USF Polytechnic.)