Author: lettenso

Presenting and Pondering

Myself and the other fellows finished our summer of research by presenting our work thus far. Rather than being nervous for my presentation, I was instead surprisingly excited. I find my research of the brain’s visual system to be extremely interesting, and I was looking forward to being able to share this interest with others!

The presentation experience did indeed live up to my expectations. I really enjoyed explaining my initial findings, future plans, and the significance of my work. After my presentation, I was particularly moved by the insightful follow-up questions from the audience. The audience’s relevant questions were not only thought-provoking, but also demonstrated to me that I had explained my area of study well enough that the audience was able to synthesize the information.

In addition to enjoying my own presentation experience, I also enjoyed listening to the presentations of the other fellows. Each of the fellows have been sharing their progress at our weekly meetings, but getting to formally hear about their initial findings provided a new perspective of their work.

Throughout the summer, the fellows and I have established an exciting environment of academic discussion. I hope we continue to share our work and learn from one another as we enter the fall. I look forward to seeing how our projects progress as we continue on this research journey together!

The Brain Recovery Project: A Life Changing Weekend in Cleveland

This previous weekend a few lab members and I took a trip to Cleveland in order to attend a neurosurgery conference called, the Brain Recovery Project. This conference is designed to allow patients, family members, clinicians, and researchers to convene and discuss the treatment of epileptic patients with large brain resections.

Now, you may be wondering what exactly is epilepsy? And, what is a brain resection?

Epilepsy is a common neurological disorder characterized by seizures. When we think of a seizure, we often think of muscle and body convulsions. In reality, these convolutions are the result of abnormal and intense brain activation. Seizures are often described by doctors as an electrical storm in the brain. The severity and frequency of seizures associated with epilepsy differs greatly depending on the individual. While approximately 60% of epileptic children’s seizures are controlled with medication, 40% suffer from seizures which are drug-resistant. If the seizures of drug-resistant epilepsy are severe enough to inhibit development and cause brain damage, patients and their families may make the tough decision to be treated with a brain resection.

A brain resection involves surgery to remove the region of the brain from which the seizures, or “electrical storm,” are originating. Many of these epileptic patients must have an entire hemisphere (right or left half of the brain) removed in order to successfully control their seizures. The idea of removing a large portion of ones brain sounds very, very scary. What we are finding, however, is that many of these patients make amazing recoveries and live full seizure-free lives after their surgery. Despite recent advancements, there is lack of research regarding the treatment and development of brain resection patients.

My lab and I specifically attended this conference in order to research how the visual system recovers from brain resections. We sought answers to questions such as, why do some patients regain reading abilities while others do not? How is the perception of faces and contrast altered in these patients? Luckily, the patients at this conference were eager to help us answer these questions. Over the course of two days, 35 amazing patients came to our testing rooms in order to participate (we set up two make-shift testing rooms in the  hotel where the conference was taking place). Thanks to these participants, we now have an unprecedented amount of data and may be able to find some answers to these questions.

On a more personal note, I didn’t expected to be so impacted by my weekend at this conference. At first, I was very nervous for the conference. Many of the patients signed up for our study were children, and I had never conducted research with children before. What I found, however, was that I loved interacting with the participants of our study. I enjoyed helping them to understand the tasks we needed them to do, and I loved answering their wide-array of questions. Most of all, I enjoyed the small talk we shared and hearing about their hobbies, interests, and opinions. My time at this conference has convinced me that I am interested in patient research, and that I like interacting with participants very, very much.

It is hard to express and fully understand how this conference has impacted me, but I feel as though I have undergone a major positive change and a shift in my world view. I am thankful for my advisor and the graduate student in my lab for including me on this trip. I am also thankful to the patients and family members at the conference for being so welcoming and sharing their stories with us. I hope I am able to attend again in the future, and until then, I wish them all the best!

Piloting and Proficiency

Other than some minor adjustments, I have finally finished coding the scripts which will be used to run my experiment. These scripts are run through an environment called MATLAB. Working with these scripts has been challenging, but I now feel somewhat comfortable operating in MATLAB. I hope to continue fine-tuning my MATLAB skills, and I have even enrolled in a free online MATLAB course.

Now, that my scripts are running, I have begun the process of piloting. Piloting consists of running the experiment on others to test my scripts and catch any initial errors. While piloting, I am working to integrate eye-tracking into my scripts. Eye-tracking involves the use of a special machine which interacts with my script to measure a participants’ eye movements as they are completing assigned tasks. This technology is really useful because it allows me to monitor a participant’s eye movements to ensure they are accurately following the instructions of the study (they are instructed to move their eyes in different ways throughout the study).

Lastly, I am currently writing a short description of my study to post on the university’s participant-pool website. This description must summarize my research in a way which communicates the nature of participation and captures the research’s significance. Ideally, this description should be exciting in order to make participants interested in the study. Writing this paragraph requires the use of a very a different skill set than coding experimental scripts.

My next step is to focus on finishing piloting using eye-tracking. Ideally, I will begin to run participants before the end of summer!

Slow, but Steady!

One thing I have learned from my previous research experience is that progress almost always takes longer than you expect it to. At the start of the summer, I was hoping to have already begun piloting by this week. Instead, I am still flushing out some aspects of the code I will use to run my experiment.

The experiment I am creating is run on a laptop. It shows participants various stimuli in different regions of the screen, prompts them to press keys as responses, and then records their response time and accuracy. The response times collected can then be used as indicators for the location and sensitivity of brain regions. This exciting paradigm, introduced to me by Dr. Behrmann’s lab, allows an experimenter to estimate the location of brain regions on each side of the brain without using expensive brain-imaging technologies (like fMRI scans).

As a beginner programmer, there was a large learning curve I needed to overcome in order to successfully code my experiment. I became aware very quickly that to tackle this daunting task, I would need to use all of the resources available to me. I began by reading online help-guides to get myself familiar with the basics of the program. Next, a graduate student in Dr. Behrmann’s lab was kind enough to spend his valuable time helping me one-on-one. Lastly, I was lucky enough to gain access to existing codes from our lab as well as partnering labs which I could use to build-off of.

Despite things taking a bit longer than I expected, I feel I am making good progress. My programming abilities have greatly improved, and this new skill will likely come in handy for future studies. I am thankful to have had the luxury of time which has allowed me to spend longer examining and understanding the codes I am working with.

I am now very close to beginning piloting, and I will hopefully have a few lab members take the experiment later this week! I plan to keep working at this steady pace and enjoying the feeling of consistent progress, even if it advances a bit slower than I expected.

So, what are you researching?

I am so happy to begin this summer of research! I have been striving towards conducting my own experiment ever since first becoming a research assistant during my freshman year at CMU. Now that this goal of mine has become a reality, I am both nervous and excited to begin the long journey.

First a little about myself, I am a psychology student with a concentration in neuropsychology and a minor in cognitive neuroscience. In other words, I particularly enjoy learning about the biological mechanisms and components of the brain which underlie psychological phenomena.  In particular, I am interested in the development of the visual system and how our brain allows us to see our environments.

For my project, I am studying a specific area of the brain called the visual word form area. The visual word form area (VWFA) is an area of the brain which allows us to recognize written words and plays an essential role in our ability to read. Pretty cool! Lately, I have noticed I struggle to explain my research hypothesis in layman’s terms. My research relates specifically to certain anatomical and connective regions of the brain, and it’s easy for me to slip into field-specific jargon in order to explain my study without even realizing it! Explaining my research to others outside of the psychology field is something I am still learning, but this blog will be a great opportunity for me to practice this important skill.

To conclude my first blog post I will quickly describe what I’ve done so far as well as the next steps I need to take for my project. I have completed my literature review and an experimental protocol (I will describe more about my study’s design in my next blog post). In order to interact with human participants, I received IRB approval and access to the SONA participant pool. Now I am working through lots of MATLAB code to actually create the experimental stimuli which will be presented to the participants. This code will be run on a laptop and show participants various visual stimuli, track their eye movements, and record their responses. I have very little experience with MATLAB, so this is a daunting task for me. Luckily, a graduate student in my lab has been guiding me through this process. Hopefully I will have this code up and running before my next post, but for now I need to get back to work!