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Recruiting Neurons and Psychology Students to Give Those with Brain Injuries New Vision

Hands-on research at Trent ACT Lab examines why touch can help us see better

Researchers in the Action and Cognition @ Trent (ACT) Lab, led by Dr. Liana Brown, associate professor of Psychology, are examining why touching objects or even being near them, can help us see things more clearly.  This “near-hand advantage” may assist rehabilitation specialists in the treatment of individuals suffering from brain injuries – enabling them to grab a coffee cup or toss a ball.

The research program involving Trent students and community participants, has also been given a boost by a recent Discovery Development Grant from the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC). 

Recruiting neurons to see, process and use tools


“Experiments show that we can see things better when items are in or near our hands, or when items are near a tool that we know how to use well,” explains Professor Brown. “Children often use their fingers to follow their place in a book. Our research may be able to explain why people naturally adopt that strategy.”

According to Prof. Brown, neural recordings show that bimodal neurons in our brain merge vision and touch information. When items are held in our hands or are close by, neurons become especially active and subsequently more neurons are recruited. The researchers study how this brain activity helps participants process objects quickly and accurately. They are also exploring how people learn to incorporate tools, like hockey sticks that expand reach or prosthetics that replace human hands.

“Occupational therapists spend many hours training people to use tools after they experience some mobility loss, perhaps due to a stroke. This research may help OTs refine their treatments.”

Real research. Real training. Real lab.

An experienced researcher, Prof. Brown shares aspects of her work with students in her Cognitive Psychology, Neuropsychology, and Sensation & Perception courses.  She also trains students in the lab.

“We do all of our testing in the lab and we invite community members to participate in the research,” explains Prof. Brown.

“The research is fascinating,” says Angelica Coculla, a fourth-year Psychology and Biology undergraduate who plans to pursue a master’s degree in Neuroscience. “The lab experience gave me an appreciation for the amount of research and work required in designing and running a study. It also gave me deeper insight into neuroscience and the topics that haven’t been investigated yet.”

 “I conduct research and interact with participants,” said Adriana Paoletti, a M.Sc. Psychology student. “I have first-hand experience in organizing, analyzing and interpreting data sets which is required for many research-based positions. Importantly, I learned that research is a very demanding process requiring persistence and patience.”

Matthew Hagopian, a recent Trent Psychology graduate, helps to design and administer experiments and analyze data. 

Hoping to also pursue a M.Sc. in Psychology, he says, “I have learned the importance of critical thinking and being able to problem solve within a team dynamic.”

Posted on December 13, 2018