We sit down with neurologist Trevelayne Faller to pick her brain.
What is Cognitive Neuroscience?
Cognitive Neuroscience is the science that deals with the structure/function of the brain, and its relation to behaviour and learning.
What led you to study Cognitive Neuroscience?
Before studying Cognitive Neuroscience, I studied Psychology, which developed from wanting to understand more about human behaviour. What makes us different from each other?
What shapes our perception, and how does this influence our interactions?
Psychology is a very broad field, and within it there are many different subfields (social, developmental, evolutionary and so on) which I learnt about as an undergraduate. It was during this time I also developed an interest in neurological disorders (Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease, depression etc.) and became focussed on studying human behaviour through brain behaviour, rather than through people’s actions. More specifically, I wanted to understand how the brain responds to challenges in neurological disorders – to find ways of developing better rehabilitation techniques (ways of restoring someone to health through training/therapy). This led me to shift from Psychology into Cognitive Neuroscience.
Why is Cognitive Neuroscience relevant to us?
Everything we think, feel, or do comes from a function in the brain. In other words, there’s a process behind all our thoughts, feelings and actions. To provide a simplified example, there are several structures in your brain that are being activated while you read these words; your visual cortex is sending visual information to various areas of the left side of your brain. These structures are processing the meaning behind the words you are reading, and the area of your brain responsible for processing language (Wernicke’s area) is generating the auditory representation of the words. This is just one example of how multiple cognitive and neural mechanisms (which we are unware of) contribute to our simple everyday functions.
A better understanding of the brain allows us to have a better understanding of ourselves – as well as each other. This deeper understanding can also contribute towards treating various diseases and illnesses. For example, the way we understand depression largely shapes our perception of it, as well as the way we treat it. During ancient times, depression was thought to be caused by demons and evil spirits, and was treated with methods such as beatings, shackles or starvation to drive the demons out. Today we understand that depression is largely caused by an imbalance of chemicals in the brain, as well as other factors: genetics, environment, and personality. Because of this deeper understanding, more appropriate treatments can be offered compared to previous centuries where many depressed people were treated with lobotomies (a surgery that severs the connections in the frontal part of the brain), which were proved to be ineffective.
What are the advancements you’ve seen/experienced in Neuroscience?
Advances in technology have allowed us to study the brain in ways that weren’t possible before, making what we thought was only imaginable a reality. One important scientific discovery was neuroplasticity – the brain’s ability to be flexible and reorganise itself based on changes in its environment. Our brains are made up of billions of neural pathways connecting and relaying messages back and forth between multiple sub-structures. These neural connections are what allow us to move, think, and feel as we do. During our development, every time we learn a new behaviour a new neural pathway is carved out in the brain. The more we repeat that behaviour, the stronger that neural connection becomes. Every time we think in a certain way, practice a certain task or feel a certain emotion, the neural pathways used to carry out these functions are strengthened, and by the time we’ve reached adulthood, our brains have built up large repertoire of mastered skills and abilities that we perform more automatically from memory.
Over the past two decades, scientists have continually found new ways to explore how these structures and pathways shape our behaviour by looking at what happens after a disruption to the brain. For example, what happens to the area of the brain representing a body part once it’s been lost? This phenomenon has been explored through research with amputees and has been largely shaped by advancements in technology. Twenty years ago, the answer would have been that the area becomes an empty space. This is because during this time, it was thought that our brains stopped developing once we reached adulthood – so the structures/pathways the brain uses to carry out functions become fixed. Ten years later (following the discovery of neuroplasticity) the answer would have been that structures in the brain reorganise themselves depending on changes in input/output to the brain. With this theory, the area of the brain representing the missing body part would be taken over by neighbouring regions.
Today’s answer is mixed. While some researchers still believe that a structural reorganisation happens, others think it’s the neural pathways connecting these structures that change. Once a body part is lost, the pathways connecting it to the brain are also lost – but they can also be recreated. Advancements in technology have allowed scientists to be able to reconstruct these neural connections by attaching a robotic limb to the missing body part and having it send signals to electrodes implanted in the brain. From this, someone who was previously paralyzed from the chest down could feel sensations with a robotic limb.
What would you like to see happen next?
The above is just one example of how understanding more about the structure and function of the brain could help to utilise its flexibility. Combined with the continued advancements in technology, this could have huge benefits. This deeper understanding could shape the development of rehabilitation for stroke patients, patients with neurological disorders such as Parkinson’s disease or epilepsy, people with depression or autism – or even slow down the effects of an ageing brain.
As well as being a means to provide solutions to our problems, scientific research is also driven by the natural curiosity of human beings to create knowledge. Our constant need to know more is shaping the way the world moves forward – and this is mediated by the information we’re being exposed to. I would like to see topics in neuroscience being broken down and better communicated to the world, to create more awareness and eventually more funding in research – so in another ten years, an amputee could be given a prosthetic limb that they can use and feel as if it were an extension of themselves.