New simulation technology will allow researchers in the College of Arts and Sciences at Case Western Reserve University to prepare people for an fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging).
A mock fMRI was installed this past month in a first-floor room in Mather Memorial in Case's department of psychology.
It was purchased with a gift from the Howley Family Foundation and with support from Arts and Sciences, the department of radiology at University Hospitals of Cleveland and the National Science Foundation ADVANCE Institutional Transformation Grant.
The new fMRI technology is like a window on how the brain functions. The imaging technology allows researchers to pinpoint the exact locations of where the brain is activated by its responses to stimuli like information and emotions.
For some people it can be a daunting experience if frightened by the enclosed feeling of being inside the fMRI chamber, said Heath Demaree.
The assistant professor of psychology is one of the researchers who will use the simulator.
Demaree will study how genes play a role in whether we stay on an even keel or have drastic mood swings of happiness and sadness.
The researcher will examine how the brain is activated and responds to positive and negative emotional stimuli.
"I'll be assessing for individual differences between people with different genes relating to brain serotonin function," said Demaree.
A lack of serotonin can result in depression.
The fMRI can also help researchers determine whether new anti-psychotic drugs are working for their patients.
According to Demaree, research time on the fMRI—one of the newest technologies to map where the brain functions under different circumstances—is expensive.
He added that with time constraints on the use of the technology, the researchers do not want to lose their research time when a subject realizes they suffer from claustrophobia while inside the fMRI.
"With the mock fMRI, we will be able to tell which individuals will be able to cope with the technology," he said.
Other Arts and Sciences researchers using the new technology are Douglas Detterman and Lee Thompson from psychology; Angela Ciccia from communication sciences; and Merlin Donald from cognitive sciences.
Thompson studies early reading and math skills in twins. She hopes to use fMRI technology to better understand the basic cognitive processes that contribute to reading and math skills at the level of brain function.
She said children have a harder time than adults understanding how important it is to remain motionless when undergoing a scan. The mock unit will allow researchers to teach children through practice how to stay still while their brains are imaged.
According to Thompson, the simulator has additional advantages. "The mock fMRI is fully equipped to run behavioral studies with state of the art stimulus presentation and response output equipment, including the capability to use eye tracking," she said.
Ciccia, who has done prior work on the fMRI, envisions the prep time on the mock as "useful when scanning individuals, who have a variety of disorders that make it difficult to pay attention or follow directions."
Detterman's research over the past decades has focused on mental retardation. Currently, he is looking at three genetic syndromes—Down, Fragile X and William's syndromes.
"A very simple question will be asked is if their brains process information the same while performing basic tests," said Detterman.
"If they do, then it means that all of these syndromes share a common brain defect," he said.
But if the opposite is found, Detterman added that "it means that each syndrome produces different brain deficits and the fMRI may tell us where they are."
"Research with fMRI allows you to see in real time where different areas of the brain are becoming activated," said Demaree.
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