People in our Research Facilities
Advances in cognitive neuroscience require new technology, cross-disciplinary collaboration and innovative methods for measuring the brain and behaviour. Western is home to an exceptional combination of tools, and more notably, people, who help us raise the bar for cognitive neuroscience research, including:
- Physicists, who build brain imaging equipment and interpret results;
- Mathematicians, who create analysis methods and build models of the brain;
- Cognitive psychologists, who construct models of the mind and design tasks that isolate particular mental processes;
- Physicians – from neurologists to neonatologists – who explore problems most commonly encountered by patients and integrate our growing knowledge of the brain into clinical practice;
- Philosophers, who answer new ethical questions and guide development of this new science;
- Developmental psychologists, who discover how the brain grows and what can go wrong during childhood; and
- Computer scientists, who run complex computer systems and engineers who build laboratory equipment to administer all manner of tasks.
Functional MRI (fMRI): Seeing the brain in action
Except in rare cases when a patient is having brain surgery, we need to measure the brain in non-invasive ways. Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scanners are used to safely and quickly detect changes to blood vessels – including size, blood flow and oxygenation – in regions of the brain activated when a person performs a task. As an example, the following nine image slices demonstrate brain regions activated as a person remembers a visual pattern. The hot colours represent regions that have been activated and the cool colours demonstrate deactivated brain regions during the exercise.
We use MRI systems at the adjacent Robarts Research Institute, including a Siemens Tim Trio and a 7 Tesla fMRI system – the highest-field human MRI device in Canada and one of three in the world developed for neurological use. Scanners at nearby hospitals are also used for examining inpatients, including newborn babies, and patients with disorders of consciousness.
Another way to measure brain activity is to record electrical signals on the surface of the scalp, a method known as electroencephalography (EEG). Benefits of EEG include lower cost and ease of transport. The Brain and Mind Institute is home to two electrically shielded recording rooms and a number of EEG systems (ranging from 14 to 128 channels). It has a geodesic sensor net for measuring the positions of the electrodes on the head, and an MRI-compatible EEG kit for doing both simultaneously. It regularly acquires EEG data in patients at local hospitals.
MRI: Measuring brain anatomy with a 375 megapixel camera
We can measure many different characteristics of brain anatomy using MRI, including:
- thickness of the cortex on the surface of the brain;
- strength of “white matter” connections between brain regions;
- locations of veins and venules (the 3D volume this detail comes from was 375 megapixels in size);
- location of brain injury; and
- chemical properties of brain regions.
Stimulating the Brain
With a transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS), researchers can also investigate interconnected neural activity by stimulating a local region of the brain in a non-invasive way, and by measuring how this interferes with a specific task.
Measuring Eye and Body Movements
Much can be learned about the mind from careful observation of behaviour, both in healthy volunteers and in patients with brain injury. The Institute has special expertise in measuring movements of the whole body, a single limb or just the eyes. It has a number of pieces of sophisticated equipment that can track movements, including, for example, as a participant walks or grasps an object. It is also now possible to track movements as someone reaches for real objects while in a brain scanner.
Neurobiology of Sleep and Sleep Disorders
We spend nearly a third of our life asleep. But what is the function of sleep and what goes on in our brain when we are asleep? Working out the answers to these questions is crucial to understanding the impact of sleep loss, sleep disruption and sleep disorders, which in North America, has reached epidemic proportions. About one in five Canadians suffers from sleep loss, which wreaks havoc on society’s productivity, safety, physical and mental health.
The BMI houses a fully-equipped 3-bedroom sleep laboratory with three in-lab 32-channel EEG and polysomnographic systems for recording and analysis of overnight sleep studies. This sleep laboratory allows scientists within the BMI and from elsewhere on campus to apply the latest and most advanced EEG and neuroimaging technology to some of the most important unresolved scientific questions, including “what is consciousness” and “why do we sleep?” It also allows researchers to characterize the function of sleep for learning and memory, and to identify the neural substrates and activity that support sleep-dependent memory processing and synaptic plasticity.
Animal Models of Cognition and Behaviour
Modern methods for study of human brain function, in particular functional neuroimaging, provide unprecedented new insight into the broad topography of cognitive neuroscience. Understanding the detailed neurophysiological mechanisms underlying such processes requires complementary studies in animal models. Nonhuman primates (NHPs) represent the ideal animal model for the study of complex cognition. The BMI’s access to the NHP animal model is one of its unique strengths, and many of the Institute’s members run parallel programs in humans and animals. As an example, complementary research is ongoing in both humans and NHPs for such topics such as neuroplasticity, resting state networks, neuro-vascular coupling underlying the BOLD signal for fMRI, and the neural basis of higher-order and sensorimotor behaviour . The results of such programs illuminate the work of other BMI members and constrain theories of brain function with biologically plausible mechanisms. Consequently, BMI researchers are poised to play key roles into the development of emerging animal models of higher-order diseases, such as autism, schizophrenia, frontotemporal dementia and brain plasticity following stroke.
Brain imaging technologies yield many terabytes of data each year, providing all sorts of new information about the brain, placing ever-increasing demands on high-performance computing. The Institute has established its own computing cluster and is closely engaged with the Canada-wide Compute Canada high-performance computing consortium and the Southern Ontario Smart Computing Infrastructure Program (SOSCIP), which is a partnership between IBM and a consortium of universities led by Western and University of Toronto. Researchers at the Brain and Mind Institute are making use of cognitive analytics to take full advantage of vast amounts of data trapped in medical images to allow physicians to make fully informed decisions in real-time.