Passionate about research

August 11, 2020 | Science, Campus Life, Health

Unless you've completed second- or third-year courses under Dr. Christopher Striemer, this year's Distinguished Research Award recipient, you may still be under the impression that human beings only use 10 per cent of their brain.

Dr. Striemer wants you to know that's a myth.

"We use all of our brain, all of the time," says the associate professor in psychology. He adds that there isn't much wasted space either. "Basically what we have up there is there for a reason, and it's been shaped through millions of years of evolution to help us survive as best as we can."

We talked to Dr. Striemer about the challenges of his research, what he's working on now and the humbling experience of seeing his own brain for the first time.

Q.When did you first become interested in studying the brain?

When I was an undergraduate student, I took a condensed course in brain and behaviour over the summer. It was a three-month course crammed into three weeks, and I put a lot of time and effort into it because the topic instantly fascinated me.

As I moved on through my undergraduate studies, I had the opportunity to interact with amazing professors who sparked my interest in the brain and cognitive neuroscience more generally. They were passionate about the topic and instilled that kind of passion in me.

I have a fond memory of my time at the University of Saskatchewan in the late 1990s when we began using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to examine brain activity. I was fascinated by this so I volunteered to be a subject, going into the fMRI and then afterward seeing my own brain for the first time. It was a mind-blowing experience for a 20-year-old undergraduate to see.

Q.What is it about seeing your own brain that is so impactful?

It was a humbling experience, almost like meeting yourself for the first time. One of the things I tell students (and it's a little reductionist, but I think it's actually very accurate) is that basically everything you are, everything you think, everything you say, every memory you have, every emotion you feel — all of it is a byproduct of neurons firing in your brain. The only proof you need of that is to see what happens when somebody gets a brain injury and how it affects all those things. Then you see how vital the brain is for everything we are.

Q.What do you love about this subject matter?

The brain is the most complex system on earth in terms of what it's capable of and how intricate it is, and we're still trying to understand it.

Like most things in science, every time you discover something new, there are more questions that come up that need to be answered. So as soon as you discover something new, you're asking three or four other questions that you now need to try to figure out as you keep learning.

One thing I try to emphasize to students ... is that they should never take research and scientific discovery for granted.
—Dr. Christopher Striemer

Q.What is the biggest challenge in doing this research?

The brain is the ultimate reverse engineering project. For example, in World War II, if an army captured an enemy tank or plane, they would bring it back to their facilities and tear it apart to try to learn everything they could about it, from its vulnerabilities to how they might be able to benefit from its technology. That's what reverse engineering the brain is about.

All of us are born with this organ that controls everything we do and everything we think, but we didn't design it. A computer or machine is designed for a purpose, and we have blueprints for what it does and how it works. We don't have anything like that for the brain.

So we have this incredibly complex organ and we're trying to learn how it's engineered and how it operates, but we can only really do it in indirect ways. One way to do this is to observe how behaviour changes when someone has a brain injury. Another method is to use brain imaging techniques (MRIs) to study what parts of the brain are more active in certain conditions than others. It's complex and challenging, but it's always fascinating.

Q.What are you working on now?

I'm currently the chair of MacEwan's Research Ethics Board, but in terms of my own research, I'm looking at a couple of areas of focus. One of the things I've been studying since my postdoc is how visual information (that we are not always consciously aware of) can still influence our behaviour. I study this in patients with vision loss following a brain injury. One of the main visual areas of their brain is injured, so they may appear blind; however, their eyes are still working and sending visual signals to other undamaged parts of their brain, which can still influence their behaviour.

I'm also starting to look more in depth at the cerebellum. It's a really ancient part of the brain and one of the oldest structures in the nervous system. We've known for the past 200 years that the cerebellum is really important for controlling and coordinating our movements. But more recent data suggests that the cerebellum seems to be important for other types of cognitive functions, such as attention, language and emotion. I have started studying this in patients with cerebellar brain injuries as well as in healthy adults using non-invasive brain stimulation.

Q.What is your favourite thing to teach students about research?

One thing I try to emphasize to students that isn't always obvious is that they should never take research and scientific discovery for granted.

You might not want to be a scientist for your own career, but you should leave my class with a respect for the field and the hard work that it's taken other people to make these amazing discoveries that all of society benefits from in immeasurable ways.



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