Reverse engineering the brain

January 27, 2016


Grey matter enthusiasts stimulated by studying the brain

Chris is fascinated by the brain—it’s his life’s work.

“Everything we think, every emotion we have, every part of our personality, every memory we have of our lives is determined by the firing of neurons in our brain,” says psychology Assistant Professor Chris Striemer, “and if you damage those neurons, you lose that function.”

His research background is in human neuropsychology and cognitive neuroscience. “I started in graduate school studying human neuropsychology, looking at how the brain controls behaviour and specifically how damage to the brain can alter behaviour.”

He describes his field of research as the “ultimate reverse engineering project.” “We didn’t design the brain. It evolved over millions of years of natural selection, and what we’re trying to do now is understand, with the current state of the brain, how the nervous system operates, and how we can use that knowledge to treat people with different neurological disorders.”

Altering brain activity

One of the ways Chris is doing that is using transcranial direct current stimulation (tDCS), a non-invasive method of stimulating the brain, to study how systems like attention, perception and movement are controlled.

tDCS makes use of a small battery-powered stimulator to send a small electrical current into the brain through sponge electrodes placed on the scalp.

“The current actually alters the baseline activity in the neurons in the area of the brain directly beneath the electrode,” explains Chris. While the subjects don’t notice anything, Chris is “priming neurons to fire more or less, depending on whether you put a positive or negative current into a brain area you’re interested in studying.”

Chris received an NSERC Discovery Grant to look at the relationship between the attention and motor systems in healthy individuals, and what that relationship can help us understand about the way these systems might work in patients with brain damage.

Sharing knowledge

Bachelor of Science (honours psychology) student Stephen Pierzchajlo is working with Chris and conducting a tDCS study looking at prism adaptation and attention. Fascinated by textbook chapters on the brain, the former biological sciences student made the leap into psychology when he saw there were more opportunities to study how the brain controls behavior.

“I started reading authors like Oliver Sacks and got interested in brain damage disorders, which are so bizarre that there’s not often a good explanation for them,” he says. “[Neuroscientist] V.S. Ramachandran called it the ‘X-Files of neurology,’ because it almost seems supernatural at times.”

Chris and Stephen developed the experiment together; however, Stephen put out calls for research participants, got ethics approval for the project and is currently collecting and analyzing the data. If all goes well, they will submit a paper for publication and try to present the work at a conference.

Chris says Stephen’s help (and that of other undergraduate students) is as invaluable to him as the research experience is to Stephen, who is currently applying to graduate schools.

“The most direct benefit of working with students is that they have time to do what I don’t have time for as a primary investigator,” says Chris. “At this level, you try to garner funding to help you bring in students so you can teach them to do the work and to collect and analyze the data. The student obtains a great deal of valuable research experience that will help them in their future career goals and if everything goes well, we have some valuable new information that we can share with the scientific community.”

Chris also relishes in having the opportunity to interact with students and help them develop their skillsets, learn to think critically, write clearly and prime them to carry out research independently. “You basically get the opportunity to shape the next generation of scientists and train them to be able to succeed in graduate and professional programs. It’s the part of teaching that I love the most.”

Want more research? Check out Student Research Week, January 25 to 29.

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